Biking Through History: The Biker Babes Cruise the Civil War, Part Three
Sunday, 3 June 2001 - Winchester to Cedar Creek to New Market
The Wingate Inn fed us a free breakfast – cereal (well, yogurt, in my case), juice, and French vanilla cappuccino – and then we drove into historic Winchester to take the walking tour. That was a nice start to the day, and the old homes are really beautiful. One house in particular had chimneys with an obvious curve, due to the mortar drying out faster over the years on the sheltered side. We learned that Winchester was also the place where the protected noncombatant status of doctors was established during the Civil War; with the town changing hands so often, there were always casualties from both sides being cared for, and it was a Winchester physician who argued successfully to both camps that doctors didn’t belong to the forces of either side, but would care equally for both.
We returned to the hotel for another cappuccino, and then checked out and hit the road for New Market, after a lunch stop at the local Cracker Barrel. En route to New Market, since we were too early to go into the visitor center at the privately owned Cedar Creek Battlefield (which didn’t open until 13:00 on Sundays), we backtracked a bit to visit the New Town Festival going on in Stephens City, which we’d ridden through a few miles down the road. That stop brought the biggest laugh of the day, because sitting outside a craft shop on the main street were two large dolls, a grandma and grandpa biker pair all in Harley attire! The dolls had porcelain faces and hands, and everything else – the leathers, the boots, grandpa’s braided grey hair (combed from the biker wanna-be husband of the artist!), the dog chains on the boots – were all done from scratch. It was amazing workmanship, and funny as the dickens! Grandma’s nails were even polished and she was wearing tiny Harley earrings, and grandpa’s shades were custom-tinted. It was a howl!
We went on to Cedar Creek and watched their fifty-minute video on the battle. The film was shot locally in 1999 during the annual reenactment, which is the only reenactment that actually takes place on its proper battleground – Cedar Creek is not a federal or state park, but is maintained by a non-profit organization that believes that the historical reenactment on the real ground of the fight is the appropriate way to commemorate the past. Other reenactment events take place in areas close to their original sites, but the original sites themselves are protected by authorities who do not want the sites defaced.
There’s nothing really to see at the Cedar Creek battlefield itself, although the historical organization hopes to be able to fund some markers in the fields themselves. There is one historic building on the overall grounds – the Belle Grove mansion – which we decided not to tour, although we drove around the impressive grounds.
We went on to New Market, Virginia, our stop for the night. We checked into the Quality Inn and then went to the nearby Civil War Museum, which we reached an hour before its 17:00 closing. We went through the museum, which is mostly on the Civil War but has pieces of every other war mixed in, in somewhat haphazard fashion, and concluded that this place was not big on organization. We didn’t have time to see their 35 minute film, but we learned on the way out that our tickets would allow us readmission the next day.
We had a naughty dinner at Burger King (hey, this was the first Burger King I’d ever seen with a cannon out in front of the place!), and then took our evening constitutional through the historic district, which runs just a couple of blocks in each direction from the town’s main intersection. New Market was no Winchester – it seemed much less well kept, although there were several houses with work being done on them.
Back at the hotel, we checked out the pool, but decided not to swim; the pool was outdoors, and the wind off the mountains had been sharp and cool all day. So we went to our room, did our reading for the next day, and made some changes to our planned itinerary to work in a visit to Appomattox. Finally, we called our cousin Brian in the small community of Weyer’s Cave, and set up a visit for the next day at 16:30 or so.
Monday, 4 June 2001 - New Market to Dayton to Staunton
We had breakfast at the Johnny Appleseed restaurant connected to the hotel. Good omelettes, but too much cinnamon in the baked apples.
We packed up, checked out, and returned to the New Market Civil War Museum to see the movie we’d missed the day before. It was a concise history of the Civil War campaigns, a narration presented over still images of sepia-toned, line drawing artwork.
From there, we went just a tiny bit further down the road to the Hall of Valor museum maintained by the Virginia Military Institute, VMI. Wow! We all agreed that this was absolutely the best museum we saw on the tour. It is a small museum, but it lays out in a simple circle the history of the war in Virginia in the context of the progress of the war everywhere. You turn to the right as you enter and find yourself in 1861, and as you walk slowly around, the years advance. Virginia information is presented in the foreground, while the background supplies the events going on at the same time in other places. The presentation is concise and beautifully organized, and I came away with a much better understanding of how the events in Virginia related to simultaneous action in other theaters of the war. The museum includes a very well done live action film that dramatizes the story of the VMI cadets – boys aged 15 to 18 – who marched from VMI in Lexington to fight in the battle of New Market. Ten of the cadets were killed.
The museum grounds provide a walking tour of the portion of the battlefield that most featured in the VMI’s part of the fight. Like the Manassas battlefield, the walking path is laid out by cut grass in an otherwise wild-growing field. The self-guided tour is a mile-long walk that includes the Bushong farm and the Field of Lost Shoes, so named because during the fight, the ground was so muddy that it sucked the shoes right off of the feet of the soldiers and cadets trying to run across it.
In addition to the standing exhibits, the museum presents lecture demonstrations to the many students who visit it each year. While we were there, a man was displaying a musket to a school group and engaging in a very lively question and answer session that got into how armies of the time functioned and what all the basic gear was like. He had things that the kids could handle, peer into, and around, giving them a tactile view of history that was obviously bringing it all much closer to their reality than any sterile display.
From VMI’s Hall of Valor, we drove to Dayton to find the monument to Turner Ashby. Boy, was that a disappointment – poor Ashby got only a stone block, not even a statue, in a tiny off-road lane in the middle of nowhere that looked like it might now be the meeting place of people engaged in questionable activities. Skip that one on your tour!
We headed on to Staunton, detouring just to locate cousin Brian’s house along the way to make certain that we could find it easily for our 16:30 meeting. Brian lives in the rural countryside on a road you would never find without very specific directions.
At Staunton, we checked into the Holiday Inn, and then went into the town. We drove through the grounds of the Mary Baldwin College, which were impressive, and then went to Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace. We toured the small museum there – the Pierce Arrow car alone was really worth seeing! – but didn’t have time to tour the house itself. The charming people there invited us to come back the next morning on the same tickets, and we did.
We then headed out for Brian’s, arriving on time. We had a wonderful visit, and Brian gave us the full tour of his glorious house and six acre grounds. Lovely! The house is bright, airy, and large, with five bathrooms all with double sinks – it was at one time intended to be an elder care facility.
Brian left teaching when he left Milwaukee, and he is now doing writing and web design work. His wife Jane teaches psychology at James Madison University. She was away for ten days working on standardized testing, creating the questions, so we didn’t get the chance to say “hi.”
We went to the hotel and swam in the best pool yet! This one was shaped like a number 8, with one loop outdoors and one loop inside. Room to stroke!
Tuesday, 5 June 2001 - Lexington
We found a Waffle House for breakfast in the non-historic part of Staunton, passing a cute sculpture along the way – a huge watering can on one side of a bridge, with a couple of monster flower pots (one “accidentally” tipped over!) on the other. Fun!
After breakfast, we returned to the Woodrow Wilson house to tour the manse. Very elegant for the time, and big! Then we checked out of the hotel and hit the road for Lexington. Along the way, we stopped at the farm where Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical harvester. The farm is now an agricultural research center for Virginia Tech, and the original water-driven grist mill and blacksmith shop are open to see. Above the workshop is a museum display including an early full-size replica of the original reaper, plus a whole case full of small working models of a whole string of later versions of the reaper. The models were amazing, even though they aren’t currently connected to power and thus aren’t actually operating on display.
We went on to Lexington, to start by checking in at our hotel – only to learn that their pool was closed because of a leak. Terry called the Best Western across the way and got us reservations there instead. We had lunch at the Golden Corral, then checked in, dropped off our stuff, and went into Lexington.
The Welcome Center is lovely, and one of the women working there provided us with a map of the historical district and sketched out a suggested walking route. She also shared with us a very funny story about her great-grandmother. It seems the lady was married to a doctor in Winchester, and their home and yard were used as a hospital for the injured of both sides as the running battles kept sweeping across the town. According to letters preserved from the time, the lady was pretty formidable, and when healing soldiers from either side started getting feisty, she would hit them on the head with a wooden spoon, saying “Not in my yard, young man!”
We laughed, and then hit the bricks, walking the streets. We toured Stonewall Jackson’s home, and then walked on to the campus of Washington-Lee University. We toured the Lee Chapel and its underground museum, and saw the box stall that the builder of Lee House had built right beside the house for General Lee’s beloved horse, Traveler. The stall is in a building now used as a garage, but the stall is still preserved. Traveler himself is buried in a grave just outside the Lee Chapel, where his master lies. The Washington-Lee campus leads directly into the campus of VMI, and we walked along the parade ground toward the historic barracks – from which the cadets had marched to New Market – before turning back to end our walk.
Back at the hotel, we went swimming in the very chilly pool, and timed things very well: we finished our swim just as lightning began to flash. They closed the pool about five minutes after we climbed out of it. We did laundry, and then it was bedtime – in a room festooned with drying underwear and socks ...
Wednesday, 6 June 2001 - Lynchburg
This was a lazy day. The hotel provided a hot breakfast buffet, and then we packed up and headed out. We figured to go to Natural Bridge, just 15 miles outside of Lexington, then backtrack 30 miles to catch Wade’s Mill, an operating grist mill, before crossing the Blue Ridge mountains to Lynchburg.
Natural Bridge got us our walking exercise – 137 steps down and back up – but was otherwise a bust: they wanted $10 a head for a glimpse of the rock arch. We went down, we opted not to pay, and we went back up. We drove over the top of the Natural Bridge, but from that vantage there’s nothing at all to see; you almost aren’t even sure when you’ve done it. This is one natural wonder that’s been tightly sewn up as a commercial enterprise.
Wade’s Mill was a better bet. Two Washingtonians – the guy who used to head the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and his wife, a former budget analyst with the Office of Management and Budget – bought the historic mill in 1991, and have made a go of a stone-ground wheat and corn business. You can see all the works within the mill, although they never run the wheel when people are at the mill because of the danger of injury. We had fun, and Terry shipped flour and other goodies home to friends.
Then we hit the road across the mountains. We caught lunch at a Burger King in Buena Vista, and then did our up-and-downs. The highway was good and the Harley handled it well, but Terry and I got a workout, especially on the downhill right turns!
We pulled in to Lynchburg at 13:40 and checked into our hotel, a Marriott Courtyard. We considered going on to visit Appomattox, but decided instead to make this a lazy day and do Appomattox tomorrow, since it’s on our road to Culpeper. So we went swimming instead, and the Courtyard took “best trip pool” honors – a good size, a perfect temperature, and wonderfully clean. The spa was big and hot and well maintained too, and afterward we went outside into the courtyard and sat on chairs in the sun. When the clouds came up and the wind shifted, we went inside – and just in time, because when we looked out of our room window as we got dressed, we saw the rain come pouring down. It was just a quick, hard shower, though, and ended just about the time we went down to get dinner at the Outback around 16:00. The sun stayed with us the rest of the day, and it was lovely.
Thursday, 7 June 2001 - Appomattox to Culpeper
We ate at the hotel buffet, then packed and hit the road a little after 08:00. We reached Appomattox a little after their 08:30 opening.
What a lovely place! We remain impressed by the National Park Service. They have reconstructed several key pieces of the town, including the McLean house where Grant and Lee agreed upon the terms of surrender, the Courthouse, which burned in 1892 and marked the death of the town (the rebuilt Courthouse is now the Park Service visitor center), the tavern, the general store, a law office, and the jail built in 1870.
We had a bit of fun in the McLean House. The young Ranger on duty in the house chatted with us about the level of visitors to the park, and laughed that in having to deal with all of the busloads of kids brought in by schools, he was finally getting his payback for all the problems he had caused at the park as a kid, because he was a local Appomattox boy who spent a fair amount of his time at the park making a nuisance of himself.
The McLean House also marks an historical irony. The McLeans originally lived in Manassas, and their farm was overrun by soldiers and fighting at the very beginning of the Civil War, in the first battle of Bull Run. Mr. McLean decided that he had to move his family, and that he wanted to go somewhere the war would never come – so he bought land and built a new home in the tiny community of Appomattox Courthouse. It seems the war followed him, and as it began on his land, it also ended there.
We spent a couple of hours in all at the park, walking and looking, and could have walked more. Pity we weren’t going to be around on Friday or Saturday evening: there’s a man who does a living history tour describing the events in the town from the perspective of Mr. Pears, who was the clerk of the court at the time.
We hit the road for the nearly 90 mile haul to Culpeper, our stop for the night and the longest run since the ride to Philly. We spent most of the run on Highway 15, which was a really pretty ride. Like Highway 11, which we ran on from West Virginia through much of the Shenandoah Valley, 15 doesn’t see much traffic, and it follows the lines of the old original roads. We were riding through forest and farm land, and it was beautiful.
We stopped for cappuccino at the McDonald’s in Orange, Virginia, and then finished the run to Culpeper. We checked into the Holiday Inn, and ate a 14:00 lunch at the Golden Corral. We came back to the hotel and went for a swim. The pool was outdoors and cool, but not as cold as the one in Lexington. We sat out in the sunshine for quite a while, reading about the history around us. We planned to drop in on some of the surrounding places the next day, including Brandy Station, because all that remained of our planned trip was the 90 mile ride to Reston.
We nibbled on vegetable chips from Route 11, a potato chip maker on Route 11, the wonderful highway we’d followed through the Shenandoah. The chips were really good, and unusual: sweet potato, carrot, beet, taro root, turnip, and other veggies, all turned into snack food. Want to try them? You can buy them on the web – just go to www.rt11.com!
Friday, 8 June 2001 - Culpeper to Chancellorsville to Reston
As we moved out in the morning, we took a course toward Fredericksburg that ran through Chancellorsville. It seemed that everywhere we went, we were crossing battlefields, lines of march, and historical markers. The sprawling Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park covers over 5,000 acres and includes pieces of the battlefields from Fredericksburg, Salem Church, Spotsylvania Court House, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness. We stopped at the visitor center at Chancellorsville – the place where Stonewall Jackson lost an arm after being accidentally shot in the dark by his own forces – and took their short walking tour, then climbed back on the bike and took a crisscrossing ride following the driving tour directions. Riding on the highway, we were going right through the Wilderness battlefield, where the running fight took place in forest. There were many more possible places to see than we had time to visit, although in many places – like Brandy Station – all that remains is a historical marker.
We wound up our ride in mid-afternoon back in my familiar stomping grounds of Reston, Virginia, where the Bardicvoice hotel, alas, offers no swimming pool or spa facilities.
Saturday, 9 June 2001 - Monocacy
We decided to make one last foray into the Civil War past in the final day before Terry had to go to work up in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins, and headed up to Frederick, Maryland to visit the battlefield at Monocacy Junction. Monocacy is not a well-known battle, but it was an important one: Union forces fought a costly delaying action in July 1864 to stop a daring strike by Jubal Early’s forces that were marching on Washington, DC. But for the fight at Monocacy, the Confederacy might have taken Washington, which had largely been stripped of troops for the assault on Petersburg and Richmond; troops were being rushed back to protect the capitol, but would not have made it in time.
The Monocacy visitor center is a tiny gem, complete with an animated light map that both narrates and displays the progress of the battle. The walking tour of the battlefield, a simple circle around a field, shows the key spots from the combat, including the two bridges across the river that the Union forces fought to hold and then destroy (the contemporary bridges are in the same places and serving the same functions as the original ones – one is a road, and the other a railroad), and lets you get a real appreciation of how the battle was fought. We gave Monocacy the “underrated historical site” award from the trip.
On our way back to Virginia, we decided to “take the long way home” by seeking out the one ferry still operating across the Potomac, rather than doing the usual highway bridge routine. We followed a very scenic course to join the queue of cars, bikes, and motorcycles parked waiting for the ferry. Don’t do this if you’re in a hurry, but if you want to take time to smell the flowers, luxuriate in the sunshine, and watch a guy with a combine working in the field across the road, Whites Ferry is a pleasant way to cross the Potomac River. It was Baby’s first ferry trip, amusingly enough on the “Jubal Early” – but I think the ferry boat gets closer to Washington than the Confederate general did.
With that trip, the Civil War experience came to an end, and we returned firmly to the present.