Friday, October 26, 2018

10 Gettysburg cycling tips for adventurous learners

It's not hard to imagine what this ride up Devil's Den will teach you about the Battle of Gettysburg.
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For a  perspective you won't get from your car or by walking the ground, I highly recommend riding a bike through a Civil War battlefield park. At Antietam, I especially enjoy the rush I get zooming from the parking lot above Burnside Bridge down the steep park road and past the John Otto farmhouse. And there's nothing quite like a slow ride down Hagerstown Pike, or on historic Keedysville Road, outside the national park boundary.

"Your senses are bombarded" on a battlefield bike ride, writes Sue Thibodeau, an educator, technologist and "bicycling historian," whose book, Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park, will be available in the spring. Here are Sue's 10 tips for riding through that fabulous national park:

By Sue Thibodeau

"There's no better way to tour Gettysburg National Military Park than on a bike!" I hear that a lot. For people who love outdoor, experiential learning, it's a no-brainer.

In the above photo, you can see Little Round Top on the right and the cannons of the 4th New York Independent Battery straight ahead. I am riding under the bough of an oak "witness tree," so-called because the tree is old enough to have "witnessed" the Battle of Gettysburg. On a bike, your senses are bombarded with picture-perfect scenery, smells of grass, sounds of chatter (and silence), and even the salty taste of sweat. For history buffs, the battlefield is an outdoor classroom that provides an exciting opportunity to learn -- on your timetable, your way. Like a kid.

I am grateful that John invited me to share with his blog's readers 10 tips for cycling the Gettysburg battlefield. My "10 tips" are simply 10 examples of learning by doing:

RIDE THROUGH ROSE WOODS: Rose Woods is an ideal cycling experience, partly because this area is not on the official National Park Service (NPS) auto tour. That means no busses and less cars. Find a good park map, because the ride through Rose Woods has lots of twists and turns, and at least one confusing intersection. Brace yourself for a hilly ride through a heavily wooded area lined with many regimental monuments. If you make it up the short but steep incline that ends at the 2nd Delaware Infantry Monument, you will enjoy a fast glide down to The Wheatfield.

View from Little Round Top, looking southwest.
For a historical introduction to the fighting here on July 2, 1863, I hope that you enjoy this video of a ride through Rose Woods. It's one of my first experiments using a GoPro video camera to record a ride along with historical commentary. (Yep, amateur).

TRY TO SPOT MONUMENT SYMBOLS ... And connect them to the Army of the Potomac's seven Union corps that fought at the Battle of Gettysburg:
--full moon (circle) = 1st Corps (Reynolds)
--trefoil (clover) = 2nd Corps (Hancock)
--diamond = 3rd Corps (Sickles)
--Maltese cross = 5th Corps (Sykes)
--simple cross = 6th corps (Sedgwick)
--crescent moon = 11th Corps (Howard)
--star = 12th corps (Slocum)

... But why?

2nd Delaware Infantry monument.
Because if you want to learn the battlefield military story, the monuments give helpful visual clues about what corps fought where. (Read about it here). For example, notice the clover on the top of the 2nd Delaware Infantry Monument in Rose Woods. (It's not a coincidence that this monument is on Brooke Avenue, a park road named for Union Col. John R. Brooke, the brigade commander for the 2nd Delaware regiment).

COLLECT "THEMED" PHOTOS ON YOUR RIDE: In other words, pick a topical area and then hunt for and photograph the monuments that fit that topic. Here are some examples (all of which are documented in my forthcoming book, Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park, March 2019):
--State monuments (USA, CSA)
-- Equestrian monuments
-- Bronze statues of individuals
-- Corps Headquarters monuments

Then try to figure out the meaning behind each monument's placement and history. The George G. Meade (USA) and Robert E. Lee (CSA) Equestrian Monuments, for example, each face the other, just as their two armies squared off with each other on July 2-3, 1863, across a one-mile wide field.

Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade Equestrian Monument, Cemetery Ridge.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee Equestrian Monument (on top of Virginia State Monument), Seminary Ridge.
FIND YOUR FAVORITE STATE MONUMENT (USA, CSA) ... And don't miss the ride down the entire length of West Confederate Avenue, because it's on that straight-away that you will find the North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, and Alabama state monuments -- in that order, from north to south. Union state monuments are on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery and Culps hills.

WHERE DOES THAT CANNON POINT? The roughly 400 cannons at Gettysburg are positioned for historical accuracy. So, pick a cannon and peer down its barrel to where it points. In the next photograph, for example, you might want to research Confederate Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright's (Georgia Brigade) attack through the Codori farm to Union positions protected by this rifled cannon on July 2, 1863.

Union cannon on Cemetery Ridge facing the Codori Barn and Seminary Ridge (in the distance).
CONNECT PHYSICAL AND NATURAL STRUCTURES TO BATTLEFIELD MAPS: If your maps identify Gettysburg barns, observation towers, ridges, roadways, and tall monuments, you can use these maps to get and stay oriented on the battlefield. That's no small feat on 6,000 acres of park land. (Click here for a "how to" example. Or, for a more interactive approach, click here.)

Looking west from the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge. The Virginia State Monument 
is visible in the distance.
Looking east  from near the Virginia State Monument. 
RIDE DOWN CULP'S HILL: After a  one-mile climb to the top of Culp's Hill, who wouldn't enjoy "flying" down to Stevens' Knoll?  Here's a video clip of one ride down.

200-million-year-old dinosaur footprint
 on a stone bridge over Plum Run,
 South Confederate Avenue.
Before your trip, make a list of things that you want to find. Here are some examples to get your thinking juices flowing (you can enter GPS coordinates into the Google Maps search field):
--Witness Trees (click here for GPS coordinates for 17 trees)
--Monument sculptures that include dogs (39.84222, -77.24256; 39.79703, -77.24511)
--Dinosaur footprint (39.78479, -77.24475)

KNOW THE "SECRET" MEANING OF THE PARK ROADS: Did you know that most of Gettysburg's park roads are named after Union officers, and that the shape of these roads roughly matches the officers' most significant battle lines? Simply by reading park road signs, bicyclists can learn basic battlefield formations without the drudgery of rote memorization.

PARK YOUR BICYCLE AND VISIT SOLDIERS' NATIONAL CEMETERY: Read the Gettysburg Address on the bronze plaques of the Lincoln Address Memorial, visit the Honey Locust Witness Tree (39.81788,-77.23152), find the grave of Sgt. Amos Humiston (154th New York), or enjoy a quiet circular stroll among labeled species of native trees.

WRAP-UP: Over the decades, I have toured the battlefield many dozens of times -- on foot, by car, by bus -- and since 2012, by bicycle across all four seasons. I learn something new every time. I look forward to hearing about your learning adventures cycling Gettysburg National Military Park. Take a ride back in time ... on bike.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Great photos! I especially like the George Meade photo.

    1. Thank you! One thing that's really interesting about the Meade Equestrian Monument is that it feels like it "pops up out of no where" when you walk the fields of Pickett's Charge. It had to be scary for Confederate soldiers to see the Union army after breaching the ridge.

  2. Well done. Photos and written descriptions give me another reason to see Gettysburg.

    1. And I hope that you can make a trip soon. I know it has become cliche to say this, but the Gettysburg battlefield holds something sacred in its soil. Thanks for the feedback.