Chancellorsville

I got ambitious yesterday.  Aided by my wife, who transported me and my bike 30 miles to Fredericksburg, I headed out to the Chancellorsville Battlefield for a look-see and then a 55-mile return trip, the first 20 miles I had never traversed before.  I had been wanting to do this trip for several months and finally had the opportunity to give it a shot.  Although there was frost on the ground at sunrise, the forecast was for sunny weather and temperatures reaching the mid-50s.  It seemed like a good day for the attempt.

We pulled into the Spotsylvania Mall and my wife said her goodbyes, immediately after which I noticed I had forgotten my cell phone.  I always ride with my cell phone – always.  It’s my security blanket which lets me cycle with the certain knowledge that if I get into difficulty I can call my wife and hear, “You got yourself into this mess.  Now get yourself out of it.”  Now I was about to strike out into The Great Unknown (aka Spotsylvania County) with no communications device.  I believe Thomas Stevens would have been proud of me.

Obligatory Battle Map

A quick note on the battle.  Chancellorsville was fought May 2nd and 3rd, 1863, between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the unfortunately named Union General Joseph Hooker (although the etymology of the modern-day use of “hooker” is unclear, many experts trace its use to the camp followers of Hooker’s Army of the Potomac).  With both armies staring at each other across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Hooker moved a large force westward, forded the river and sought to attack Lee from the West.  Lee recognized the Federal move and broke off a portion of his army to meet the threat.  The armies collided at the Chancellor Family home, located at a crossroads about fifteen miles west of Fredericksburg.  The result was Lee’s greatest victory.

I cleared out of the retail district and made my way to the battlefield on River Road, which existed during the Civil War.  This is the lesser of two roads heading toward Chancellorsville from Fredericksburg and no doubt some Confederates used it as they moved to the battlefield.  Given the road’s name, I was disappointed to glimpse only one short view of the Rappahannock River.  After ten miles, I reached the intersection of Route 3 and Elys Ford Road – the epicenter of the battle.  It was here that the Union Army collapsed upon itself after Robert E. Lee divided his smaller force (a MAJOR tactical faux pas born of necessity) and executed a surprise attack on two fronts.  17,500 men were killed on and around this field – a rate of one man per second for five hours.

The Chancellor House was destroyed during the battle under a withering Confederate artillery bombardment.  Hooker used the building as his command post and was leaning against a column when it was struck by a shell, causing a possible concussion which made it impossible for him to direct the battle for a period.  Today, all that is left is the foundation, which is preserved near the artillery pieces pictured above.

I puttered about the periphery of the battlefield but didn’t see any other monuments worthy of note.  I therefore decided to head to the park’s Visitor Center, where I came across one of the war’s most important sites – the place where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally killed by his own pickets.  This was a stunning loss for the Confederacy which would have implications for the rest of the war.  Upon learning of Jackson’s death, Lee said, “I have lost my right arm.”  The trail is faithfully maintained and is remarkably close to the very busy Route 3.  There is a stone marker at the site, erected in 1881 by Confederate veterans.

I could have wandered some more, but I had quite a distance to go so I made my way back to Elys Ford Road and moved Northwest.  Just as was the case in the Civil War, there are few crossings of the Rappahannock River and I needed to travel 20 miles to Kelly’s Ford.  The road was pleasant, with a very picturesque view of Hunting Run Reservoir.  Oddly, the road name changed from Elys Road to Eleys Road when I crossed from Spotsvylania County to Culpeper County. There is a story there, I am sure of it, but I can’t imagine what it might be.  The air was crisp, but not cold and the leaves were in peak color.  I had nary a care in the world as I pedaled over gently rolling country.  This changed when I reached my first turn at Mile 25 – Fields Mill Road.

It was a gravel road.

I hate gravel roads.  After suffering eleven flats last summer/fall, I remain extremely risk averse when it comes to punctures.  I haven’t had a flat since February – I was due.  And I had no phone with me.  And I was nowhere near anyplace I had ever been before.  And there were no significant buildings to speak of, apart from a light sprinkling of farms.  With little choice, I decided to take it easy on this three-mile stretch of wilderness that would eventually deposit me near Kelly’s Ford and asphalt.

About a mile down the road, I began to hear gunfire.  I wondered if it was hunting season.  Whether it was officially hunting season or not, it was definitely hunting season here.  I was very grateful to be wearing my optic yellow vest.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be killed.  That assessment changed when the dogs came.

Let me just say it is extraordinarily difficult to cautiously manuever a gravel road while being chased by three dogs.  The first thing I abandoned was caution.  Since I am typing these words, I realize there is little drama to the outcome – I made it.  About a half mile up the road, I was rewarded with a pleasant view.  I leaned my bike against a sign which read “Warning – Coyote Trapping In Progress” and took the below picture.  I could still hear gunfire coming from the woods behind the farm houses.

I was very happy to reach the end of Fields Mill Road and rejoin Western Civilization.  I crossed Kelly’s Ford (Mile 30) and left Culpeper County for Fauquier County.  I had cycled this road once before during last October’s Great Pumpkin Ride.  I celebrated by pausing on the bridge to enjoy the view and eat a Clif Bar.

The remaining miles were uneventful.  I must say that the country roads of Fauquier County are in better condition than those of Spotsylvania or Culpeper Counties (even the paved ones).  At Mile 48 I pulled into one of my favorite rest stops, the Handymart convenience store near the west end of Quantico Marine Corps Base, and ordered a slice of pizza and a Mountain Dew.

Despite their French name, they worked well

Having refueled on quality convenience store cuisine, I had more than enough energy for the remaining twenty miles.  The sun was getting low in the sky, but I remained warm in my vest, skull cap, leggings, and brand new Garneau shoe covers (which worked MUCH better than the ones I wore last year).  I arrived home after 68 miles tired but pleased to have completed the sort of adventure that makes cycling eminently more enjoyable than any other form of exercise I can think of.

Fredericksburg Battlefield Ride

  

I tried something different today.  Rather than set out from home my wife drove me to Fredericksburg and deposited me at the National Military Park, where I began heading home on a 34-mile route.  I’ve pretty much exhausted the “loop rides” that can be accomplished from my neighborhood and this gave me an opportunity to see some different terrain and visit a battlefield I had not yet seen.

Fluid levels at 100% and ready to shove off

On the way through the park, my wife was concerned about my future.  She saw some of the hills I would traverse and said, “I believe you may have bitten off more than you can chew.”  These hills were actually fairly tame.  Had she seen the hills I would be riding on 15 miles down the road, she would have had me admitted for psychiatric treatment.  Despite these foreboding words, she was most helpful in getting my gear ready to go at the far end of the park.  She took this pic, gave me a kiss and a good luck wish, then struck out for the local mall. 

For those who may not be familiar with the battle, Fredericksburg was fought on Dec 13, 1863.  Union forces under the command of Ambrose Burnside attacked Confederate forces under the command of Robert E. Lee.   The Confederates were strung out on a ridgeline that overlooked the town, located next to the Rappahannock River.  The park follows this ridgeline and ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) at a Visitor’s Center located in the town.  The battle was one of the most one-sided of the war, with Union forces suffering horrific casualties in a series of frontal assaults against this ridgeline.

Now, on with the ride.

This is a great park.  If we lived nearby, my wife and I would be walking/running/riding on this road regularly.  Many others were doing just that.  Initially, my path was downhill as I was leaving Prospect Hill, occupied by Stonewall Jackson’s corps during the battle.  At the bottom of the hill I found a large stone pyramid next to some train tracks.  This is actually a marker erected for 19th Century train passengers, letting them know they were passing through the battlefield.  The pyramid is known as Meade’s Pyramid, named after MG George Meade, whose division of Pennsylvanians breached the Confederate lines at this location.  It was the only Union unit to manage this feat and was quickly beaten back by a Confederate counterattack organized by Jackson.

The view from Lee Hill

My pace was extremely slow as I stopped to read all the markers along the way.  Not good for cardiovascular conditioning, but I figured that aspect of the ride would come soon enough.  I climbed Lee Hill, so named because GEN Lee set his headquarters on this spot.  At the time, he could view the entire battle.  Now, the site is overgrown with trees (as are many Civil War battlefields today), so it is difficult to get a sense of how it looked at the time.  Lee and LTG James Longstreet were both nearly killed twice on this hill – once when a Confederate artillery piece exploded due to a faulty barrel and a second time when a Union artillery shell landed within yards of them and failed to detonate.   It was here that Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”

Shelter and displays at Lee Hill

After leaving Lee Hill, I left the park and headed into town to swing by the Visitor’s Center.  It was only half a mile away, but I needed to get through a busy intersection at Rte 3.  The Visitor’s Center is a small but very park-like location situated next to a military cemetary.  The Center is near perhaps the battle’s most famous feature, “The Sunken Road.”  Confederate soldiers behind a stone wall repelled 16 separate assaults which resulted in over 9,000 Union casualties.  Eye witnesses described the Union soldiers falling like snow flakes landing on a warm road.  The pic at the top of the post is from this point.

Military cemetary and memorial to the Union Army's 5th Corps.

I left the Visitor’s Center and headed north toward the river.  For 10:30 on a weekday morning, there was surprisingly little traffic in Old Town Fredericksburg.  The town was destroyed during the battle during the artillery duel and subsequent looting by Federal soldiers.  After the battle, Confederates reoccupied the town and were shocked at the damage.  When a soldier asked Stonewall Jackson what should be done with people who could do such a thing, Jackson replied, “Kill ‘em.  Kill all of ‘em.” 

Memorial to a South Carolinian soldier who brought water to wounded from both armies.

I then swung onto a bridge over the Rappahannock River.  Union troops needed to cross this river to begin their attack.  When their army arrived, the Confederates were not ready to defend the area but the Federals needed to wait 17 days for the arrival of boats to ferry the men across.  This time was invaluable to the Confederates, who were able to prepare proper defensive positions.  The failure to bring up the boats was either an engineer, transportation, or supply failure.  Since I have friends in all three fields, I will happily blame all of them for the mistake!

The Rappahannock River.

On the north side of the Rappahannock, the park begins again with the Chatham House – a home where Robert E. Lee courted his eventual wife and used by the Union as a headquarters during the fight.  I had spent over an hour traveling only eight miles and felt that another delay would be one too many.  I pressed on, traveling along the river and treated to an occasional pretty view.

At mile 10, I reached Rte 1.  There is no prettiness or pleasantries about this road.  Just a gazillion cars and almost no shoulder.  In places there truly is no shoulder, just a 2-3 foot drop to a ditch, beginning about two inches from the white lane paint.  And there were lots and lots of hills.  I was traveling through Stafford County, which must mean “Land of Too Many Hills” in Algonquin.  On my Garmin elevation data, I counted ten distinct hills on this 19-mile stretch of road.  On each one, I was treated to numerous near-misses by local traffic.  As I climbed each hill, I waited for the seemingly inevitable idiot on a cell phone who would give me the opportunity to visit Stafford County Hospital.  Fortunately, that didn’t occur.  The closest miss was about six inches.

And here’s a tip: when you’re going to have your wife drop you off far from home, check the prevailing winds.  I was moving north the entire trip in precisely the opposite direction of a constant 10 mph breeze.  It wasn’t enough to become a major problem, but it was a bother to travel the ENTIRE way against the wind.

I pedaled over Aquia Creek, past Quantico Marine Base, and through Dumfries, the traffic increasing as I moved northward (no surprise there).  Back on Rte 234, my wife passed by on her way home from shopping.  She shouted some words of encouragement, which was quite nice to hear (another first for me – words of encouragement while on a ride).  My bike and I made it home in fine shape.

Oh yeah – I avoided that Dunkin Donuts parking lot in Dumfries.  Those people are crazy.