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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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!
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.