In the early days of July 1863, at the small town of Gettysburg, PA, Union and Confederate armies clashed in one of the great battles of the U.S. Civil War.
This year, as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the battle, most visitors continue to tour the scene by car or bus. But none of the 160,000 men who endured this agonizing conflict experienced the battle on wheels. Most were on foot. Some were on horses.
You can be, too, as several local ride operators offer guided tours, and each can also arrange for a licensed battlefield guide to accompany the trip to provide a more in-depth account.
Cornerstone Horseback Tours is one local business offering horseback tours of the battlefield. Riders travel the main Confederate line on Seminary Ridge, where Gen. Robert E. Lee faced decisions that would determine the fate of his second and final northern invasion.
Licensed battlefield guide Andie Donahue tells the story with passion. Donahue has set aside years of leading car tours — "on roads that weren't even here at the time of the battle," she said — to focus on horseback tours that help guests feel the land the way the soldiers did.
"You view the terrain from the soldier's perspective, which is so much more enriching," Donahue said. "You can say, see that ridge? You can't see over it. The solders couldn't see over it either."
The battlefield sprawls over thousands of acres. While South Mountain makes a dramatic distant backdrop, the overall impression to modern eyes is an expanse of gently rolling fields broken only by the distinctive mounds of Big and Little Round Tops.
"Those rolling hills affected the battle quite a bit," Donahue said. "The best way to get the advantage was to get to high ground, but high ground here comes every 600 to 800 yards. You could be very close to the enemy and not see them."
Cornerstone's gold-star tour includes the general himself, played with inspiring — and eerie — accuracy by re-enactor Frank Orlando. The tour is not scripted.
"Once on the horse, I become the man," Orlando said.
A retired principal and longtime re-enactor, Orlando has been portraying Lee for four years.
"I used to play a captain in Stonewall's brigade, but re-enactors coming into town started calling me 'general,'" Orlando said.
Orlando was fascinated by Lee's story and discovered that his own appearance and physical size matched the general's. "It helped that I have the gray hair. That's what being a high school principal will do to you," he joked.
Along with making appearances at special events, "General Lee" climbs in the saddle of his horse, Traveller, to provide insight on the battle and a memorable experience for riders of all ages.
"This is not a Wikipedia presentation," Orlando said. "We want people to hear what's going through Lee's mind and to sense the trauma for the soldiers. It's about passion and human beings."
The minimum age for most rides is 8, but one doesn't have to be an experienced rider to climb in the saddle.
"As long as you can sit in a chair, you can do this," said Cornerstone's owner and head horseman, John Paxson.
Some riders have been so quiet that Paxson wasn't sure they were enjoying the tour, only to have them gush with enthusiasm when the ride was over. "Just relax and have fun," Paxson said. "On these rides, people just ask what they want and the talks can go anywhere."
History without the Horse
To experience the landscape without sitting in a saddle, try a bicycle, carriage or segway tour. Visit www.gettysburg.travel for options. Also, stop by the battlefield visitor center for a range of guided and self-guided hikes and auto-tours, campfire programs and activities for children.
Gettysburg's 150th Anniversary
Follow in the footsteps of history during anniversary events, June 28–July 7, and again on Nov. 19 and Nov. 22–24 to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Visit a camp, witness a battle, enjoy a musical festival, see a parade, tour the monuments and much more.
This will be the peak season for visitors, so plan your trip now. Consider lodging in a neighboring town. Look for satellite parking with a free trolley to event locations.
And remember, one can explore this moving story and beautiful landscape in any season. "Gettysburg is a phenomenal Civil War destination year-round," said Carl Whitehill of the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. "A lot of people want to be a part of the anniversary and those 10 days will be the perfect time to come. But other people might not need to do that and can have a great experience any time of the year."
For events, travel tips and a smartphone app for walking tours, visit www.gettysburgcivilwar150.com.
For battle apps from the Civil War Trust, visit www.civilwar.org/battleapps/.
Before Gettysburg… Chancellorsville
It was called the "Wilderness" for a reason.
Early settlers had stripped the 70-square-mile area in central Virginia to fuel its iron furnaces, and the re-spawned forest was neither pretty nor kind.
During the time of the Civil War, the Wilderness was well known for its rough terrain, scraggly pines, and dense, endless thickets. The land was largely unpeopled and untraveled, except by way of a few crude roads and the rivers that thread its northern edge — the Rapphannock and the Rapidan.
In 1863, those rivers were enough to draw an army and ignite the Battle of Chancellorsville. This spring marks the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, about 10 miles west of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County.
Five months earlier, Union forces tried to move south by making a dramatic pontoon crossing of the Rappahannock River and taking Fredericksburg. It was a disastrous, bloody failure.
In spring, they tried again, crossing farther upstream through the shallower waters of the Rapidan. The Confederates, greatly outnumbered, met the Union army at Chancellorsville and surprised them with a daring attack.
Before the fierce fighting was over, tree limbs from the dense woods were falling on men "as if torn by a cyclone" and a 14-year-old girl who witnessed the battle described the woods as "a sheet of fire."
The Union faced heavy losses and eventually retreated across the river.
If you've never been to the Chancellorsville battle site, you might expect to find a town with that same name. But you won't. Chancellorsville was not a town, but a building.
Advertised as a "farmers' hotel," this two-story home and tavern stood at the intersection of five rural roads on the edge of the Wilderness. The roads outlived the battle. The house did not.
A Union soldier recalled being met there by "a bevy of ladies" in dressy spring clothes who were not intimidated by the men's presence and "had little conception of the terrors in store for them."
Union Gen. Joseph Hooker commanded his army from their house for three days, until Confederate soldiers swarmed and set it on fire. The women left their basement shelter and emerged to the horrors of battle on all sides.
The Confederate victory at Chancellorsville gave Gen. Robert E. Lee the confidence and opportunity to attempt his second northern invasion, which would end at Gettysburg two months later.
Lee's victory was lessened, though, by the devastating loss of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Jackson was wounded by friendly fire while scouting the enemy position and died a week later after losing his right arm.
Soldiers would fight in these forbidding woods again, almost a year to the day, in the Battle of the Wilderness. Once again, Confederate soldiers would slow the Union advance.
The visitor center at Chancellorsville is part of a larger network, the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. It stands in a patch of woods where some of the bloodiest fighting took place.
The hum of traffic is at hand as cars clip down VA Route 3, the modern descendant of the Orange Plank Road that once led to the Chancellorsville tavern. Its foundation still marks one corner of the intersection.
Inside the visitor center is an exhibit filled with the personal stories of soldiers, knowledgeable rangers and a short but stirring movie that explains the battle and Jackson's demise.
The center sits next to the spot where Jackson was hit, accessible by a short, easy footpath. A monument stands in his memory — his famous last words set in stone: "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."