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.
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.
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.