When I was in high school, my family developed a summer tradition where we’d load up a minivan and drive all over the West for a few weeks at a time. We hit dozens of places of interest that catered to our individual interests—dinosaur graveyards for me, gunfighter haunts for Mom, and battlefields for Dad.
On one of those trips we ended up at the site of the massacre of Wounded Knee. There is a small memorial and gate at the mass grave where the frozen, twisted bodies were buried.
Some places in the West, even very beautiful ones (and the West has much more than its share of beautiful places), have a kind of melancholy, forlorn atmosphere. I noticed it at some locations that were remote but simultaneously open and expansive, where you could look all around in any direction and see nothing but landscape and sky. Little Bighorn, which is one of the most gorgeous historic sites I’ve ever visited, had that feeling. Wounded Knee had it in spades.
Wounded Knee had something else, too. It was an almost palpable vibe that was—there is no other word I can think of here—sinister. You got the sense that even if you were blindfolded, driven to the site, and dropped off with no idea of where you were, you’d still have the notion that you were standing at a place where something terrible happened.
Years after seeing Wounded Knee, I went to a symposium on the Revolutionary War in South Carolina. On the last day they loaded us on a bus and took us to some of the little-known, out-of-the-way battlefields in the backcountry. One of the stops was the battlefield at Waxhaws, site of another purported massacre, where British dragoons reportedly cut down Virginia Continentals who were surrendering. It was a controversial event; the extent of the British excesses and their causes are still open to debate.
Like Wounded Knee, Waxhaws had a small monument and a mass grave. Like Wounded Knee, it was a lovely spot. And like Wounded Knee, it had that unmistakable something sinister.
I don’t believe in a permeable boundary between this life and the next one. I don’t believe that the dead remain behind, and I don’t believe in curses or parapsychological trauma, or any of the rest of it. But there’s no denying that these massacre sites have a lingering something, immaterial and intangible though it is. Maybe it’s just an accidental combination of the events and the environment.
Joshua Chamberlain said of Gettysburg, “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.” I suppose that what applies to great deeds and great fields sometimes applies to deeds and fields of horror and misery, too.