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.

17 thoughts on “Chancellorsville

  1. That’s some casualty rate Steve! 17500!!!!!! Absolute carnage!

    It’s interesting that at the Battle of Marston Moor in our Civil war in 1644 the casualties were said to be 4000 plus. That’s when the average infantryman still used cutting weapons and artillery was in its infancy.

    It seems Civil wars have a greater capacity for blood letting!

    1. The US Civil War is known for being a harbinger of wars to come. It featured railroads, telegraphs, trenches, and introduced the concept of “total war.” It also had casualty rates that were unprecedented and shocking to both sides. Chancellorsville was only the 5th bloodiest battle. The worst carnage was seen at Gettysburg, where there were 51,000 casualties.

  2. Garneau: despite their French name they are Canadian. Maybe that’s why they worked. And yes, I agree with Clive, Civil wars are far from civil, considering those kinds of casualty numbers!

    1. Almost certainly French Canadian, to be sure, but if there is one thing Canadians (regardless of their language) are exceedingly good at it’s keeping warm in cold weather. It looks like I lucked into a quality garment!

  3. Hi Steve I very much enjoyed your blog today. Interesting to see the difference in your weather compared to where my daughter lives in New Jersey over the weekend. They had a lot of snow and the power was out. I visited Lexington Virginia last year on one of our trips, where there is a lot concerning Lee and Jackson so this post was of interest. I live not far from the War of the Roses battlefield at Towton in Yorkshire. The battle took place in March 1461 and its claimed that as many as 28,000 men died there in battle. Its the most in any single battle in England.

    1. Saturday was a day of cold rain and the occasional snow flake. Things were not nearly as dramatic as in NJ and parts north. By 10:00 AM on Sunday, the sun was out and the streets were dry. Temps made it into the mid 50s and with the sunshine it was a pleasant day.

      I’ve heard of Towton Cross, which no doubt commemorates the battlefield. Is there anything else at the site worth visiting, should I ever find myself in your neck of the woods? When I lived in England, I managed a single day trip to York, where I visited the city walls, the cathedral, and the Yorvik Viking Centre. It was a very nice day.

  4. Gravel road and dogs! It was good that the rest of the ride was so interesting.
    I live at the site of the Battle of Arkinholm, described as a decisive battle in a civil war, but as there were only a few hundred men involved it doesn’t compare with these other bloodthirsty events.

    1. I expect high quality photographs of the site from you in short order! I was very happy to be on my “speedy bike” when the dogs came. Even on gravel, I had little difficulty outpacing them.

  5. We also live close to a couple of battlefields and have cycled one of them, Wilson’s Creek (where the hot-headed Gen. Lyon was killed) and Pea Ridge (across the border in Arkansas) the result of which kept Missouri in the Union. It is always sobering to me to reflect on what our countrymen did on these fields. Good to hear you survived the dogs and the views are always enjoyed.

    1. Thanks. One of these days, I’m going to have the dog waiting for me instead of chasing me, or there will be a significant hill involved. Then things will get really interesting.

  6. Late to this posting Steve, but I might actually try to get out this winter and I’m looking into cold weather gear possibilities. May I ask what sort of leggings do you use?

    1. I’ve got two pair of Nashbar leggings. They’re pretty good, although with Nashbar they tend to be on the lower end of the quality spectrum. The padding in one is not great and the reviews for the other pair said the zippers on the side often break. I solved that problem by never using the zippers! They’ve kept me warm on rides down to 25 degrees, though that temperature was pushing their limits.

      1. Thanks Steve! I think I’ll get something inexpensive, too, and go from there…who knows how much I’ll actually use them after all. I’ve not done much cold-weather riding in the past, but this year’s temps have tempted me a little deeper into the season. Going to go out in a few minutes–it’s 55 degrees here in MD!

        One other thing–I see you have the Garmin Edge 500 and seem to like it a lot. I am thinking of asking Santa for one, as both my cyclometer and HRM are giving up the ghost. Regarding the Garmin–do you have any trouble seeing the display? I.E. is it large enough for you?

        Thanks again–love your blog.

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