Battlefields by bicycle

Battlefields by bicycle

By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins) 

There’s no better way to tour the battlefield than on bicycle, says our guide while we look at a faded and wrinkled National Geographic map, depicting the meandering journey of the armies before their collision in Gettysburg.

Bob Steenstra, owner of Gettysbike Tours, didn’t need to sell us. After all, we reserved the tour weeks earlier and had risen early on a chilly April morning to meet up in the parking lot of the national park’s visitor center.

But Steenstra wanted us to know why we had paid to pedal along a roughly 13-mile route with him rather than take advantage of the roads winding throughout the battlefield. On two wheels, he said, you get a sense of the terrain that the soldiers marched and fought over in July 1863.

And it wasn’t long before the veteran guide was proven correct. The best example, perhaps, is Little Round Top. The scene of intense fighting on the second day — and the spot where the battle’s outcome hung in the balance as Confederate soldiers nipped at the Union Army’s flank — doesn’t look like much from below.

The perspective from the base of the hill, though, belies the commanding view offered by the jutting rock face above. And the ride up (the toughest stretch of the four-hour grand tour) leaves the rider with a firm understanding of the obstacle it presented to the waves of men clad in gray.

The tour features a few other inclines, but Steenstra takes his group on a generally level route and adjusts his pace to your skill level. During frequent stops, he launches into detailed accounts of the battle, jumping nimbly from big-picture strategy to individual tales of heroics or horror.

Though not carried out in chronological order (an impossibility given the different events occurring all across the lines during the three days of fighting), Steenstra offers a riveting — and easy to follow — narrative of the harrowing fight. His account takes riders through the narrow streets of Gettysburg across, across wide and rolling fields, and into wooded thickets.

Having toured the battlefield by car twice before — once with a guide and once without —there’s no arguing with Steenstra: taking two wheels rather than four is the way to go.

Inspired by the spring jaunt, I decided to visit two other battlefields a little closer to home earlier the summer. Fredericksburg, situated about 50 miles south of Alexandria, is a great jumping-off point to tour several pivotal points of the Civil War.

With our trusty Schwinns, we spent our first day on the quiet and heavily wooded Fredericksburg Battlefield just outside of town. The route is rolling and — at times — steep, but very doable on bike.

The nearby site of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, which we tackled our second day in the area, offers a better ride for enthusiastic cyclists, and history buffs won’t be disappointed by the multitude of placards expounding on the bloody fight. A view of weather-eroded Confederate trenches at the aptly named “Mule Shoe” — so called for the shape of the rebel lines — is well worth dismounting and taking a short walk out onto the field.

The two battlefields offer the ambitious traveler polar opposite experiences. Though Spotsylvania Courthouse is by far a better trip into the past, Fredericksburg offers easy access to a quant downtown reminiscent of Old Town.

And on two wheels, an intrepid visitor can easily ride from the battlefield into town for a drink and bite to eat.

It probably doesn’t need repeating a third time, but just in case you haven’t realized it yet: A trip to the battlefield is better on bicycle.