Epic Motorcycle Rides: The American Civil War States

Traveling the scenic roads through America’s great battlefields.

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Latitude: 39.6428 N

Longitude: 77.7200 W

There is a place called departure, otherwise known as Port Jervis. It is magnetic to my motorcycle, this doorway at the corner of three states. Until I go through my trip has not begun; I’ve just had the throttle on for 60 miles. Then my wheels tremble for a few long minutes on its open-grate bridge over the Delaware. When they stop I know I am underway.

Port Jervis sends me now toward both pleasure and pain. I am headed to the white-hot center of America’s greatest cataclysm, the battlefields of a vast conflict that imperiled everything we were or could become. The Civil War may be our most studied war—tens of thousands of books and counting—but no amount of page turning can equal the knock-down force of standing on the very earth that was watered by the blood of 600,000 men.

Robert E. Lee surveys Gettysburg
Robert E. Lee surveys Gettysburg©Motorcyclist

And pleasure? Well, every bike trip holds joy, even during those inevitable passages that must wait to reveal it. (Three hundred miles of cold rain I can do. Stiff wind I can do, though my heart may catch in my throat when the bike is suddenly pushed by invisible hands. Heavy fog I can do, grateful for auxiliary lights. Traffic that continually cycles between 70 mph and 10—ahead, a pickup rear-ends a semi during rubbernecking of an identical accident across the median—I can do, even if I wince. All four while the filler plug pukes an alarming amount of oil onto my left leg? Apparently, I can do that too. A week later, it’s a good story.)

A succinct memorial at Antietam
A succinct memorial at Antietam©Motorcyclist

It is pleasure, too, because satisfying any abiding fascination, even with the most terrible events, is euphoria. And the Civil War had abided in me a long time. It’s odd to “love” a war, yet I had been what you might call romantically attached since youth. My father had taken me to Gettysburg where I thrilled to the 1884 Cyclorama, and to the fields and orchards my imagination easily overpainted with the frenetic fighting I’d seen in Civil War Times Illustrated.

Now I would go far deeper. And, through three states, still not far enough: Cross the Mason-Dixon line and you are in territory where every other mile apparently saw some ferocious struggle, saw lines that entrenched then fell back, byways down which endless columns of weary men marched. Battles were fought and a month or a year later another conflict would erupt on the same spot, original sacrifice erased. Troops ordered to a new front discovered their path lay over previously contested ground—but only by coming upon their comrades’ rotting bodies, still unburied. Down each road markers and monuments and red-white-and-blue Civil War Trails signs stood thick. Every inch of this land seemed a witness. It was to make me one too.

The view from Harpers Ferry
The view from Harpers Ferry©Motorcyclist

All I had to do was populate these fields in my imagination. Not hard. The Civil War was the first armed conflict widely photographed. The pictures, once seen, cannot be unseen. They take up permanent residence in the mind, eyes of the long dead forever on yours.

I wanted an unmediated view onto where they clashed, sense the weather, the feel of the air, as they might have. I wanted intimate communion. I wanted to ride there.

Stonewall Jackson at First Manassas
Stonewall Jackson at First Manassas©Motorcyclist

I stage out of Hagerstown, Maryland, where in the gathering dusk I roll slowly past the same houses that once looked out on fighting in its streets. Confederate sympathizers here helped Lee’s forces on his retreat from Gettysburg; six days later there was skirmishing when Federals under Custer succeeded in taking the town. Then I arrive at the Comfort Inn and the spell is broken. My own retreat is to the bed, in a sea of battlefield maps and a volume from Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Union.

My aim is to visit both beginning and end. So to Harpers Ferry, site of John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on the federal arsenal that helped precipitate war less than two years later, and to Appomattox, where Lee surrendered to Grant one April day in 1865 both jubilant and sorrowful. In between I would venture to places, all now quiet, where fusillades and screaming artillery fire had torn the air. It was not so long ago.

The War Correspondents Memorial Arch
The War Correspondents Memorial Arch©Motorcyclist

A more dramatically beautiful (and now utterly peaceful) spot than Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, would be hard to find. Rock climbers favor the cliffs just across the Potomac River, and the Appalachian Trail winds along it before entering the old town on a footbridge and disappearing up well-worn stone steps to the heights above. National Historical Park visitors and hikers, motorcyclists, and bed-and-breakfasters cruise the hilly streets of what had been an industrial center since George Washington located a national armory at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac. In 1862, on the Bolivar Heights above the musket factories, warehouses, and John Brown’s fort, Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would seize a brilliant victory in capturing 12,000 green US troops. (“Remember Harpers Ferry!” would rally them next time.) The town would change hands 14 times during the war.

Brawner’s Farm
Brawner’s Farm©Motorcyclist

From this scenic spot I ride an hour south through pastel farmscape to Manassas, Virginia, the site of the war’s first major battle—the unknowing recruit’s baptism by fire. It was horrendous.

This is where Stonewall Jackson received the moniker that titled his fearless legend; its end would come two years and 50 miles away. The Confederates outgunned the Federals near this strategic supply route in 1861, and a year later at Second Manassas (also known as Bull Run) pushed them back again. As day draws to an end, I ride the few miles to Brawner’s Farm, scorching center of carnage in 1862—3,300 dead—and walk alone up the hill to stand in the still twilight that seems also rife with the sound of thousands. Night is coming on, as it was when Jackson’s infantry ambushed the unsuspecting Iron Brigade.

The scene at Five Forks
Joe explains the scene at Five Forks©Motorcyclist

So many gains by way of loss, always loss. Only death prevailed: At Monocacy, Maryland, “the battle that saved Washington,” the price was 1,300 Union casualties and defeat. The “winning” forces under Jubal Early left 900 behind. After three days of war, punctuated by cleansing rides through pastoral countryside drenched in late fall sun in order to get to more war, an accumulating weight of sadness, almost desperation, is on me.

Stone sentinels at Gettysburg
Stone sentinels at Gettysburg©Motorcyclist

A few miles away in Frederick, I park in the city’s historic center through which opposing armies passed many times (fighting when they did so at the same time); the only known photograph showing Confederate troops marching under arms was taken here. A bicyclist just dismounting sees my gear and asks if I know the local Harley shop. I think this is just a conversational gambit—and, besides, I have no idea—so I ask in return where I can get the best coffee. He feels certain I will love a café several blocks away. Turns out he is right. After refreshment in the modern world, I return to the past in the form of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which is reassuring on many counts—especially the matter of amputations. Most patients in fact received anesthesia and never had to “bite the bullet.”

Yet I find myself growing apprehensive again: The next day is Antietam. Alexander Gardner’s photos of human wreckage there, the bloodiest single day in American military history, still and forever shock.

Graffiti House at Brandy Station, Virginia
Graffiti House at Brandy Station, Virginia©Motorcyclist

Night had fallen, and I was still far from my hotel; I forgot the GPS was set to avoid the slab. When it directed me off the state road onto a road called Gapland, toward a mountain ridge I could just make out against the purpled sky, the only thing to do was embrace adventure: Let’s see where this goes.

Where it went was up, and around, and up some more. The kind of road that in daylight would give a happy smile to the motorcyclist. In the dark it gave her ghosts.

Up ahead on the right, shapes, eerily inexplicable. Until the mind reshapes them—aha. Some of the large explanatory tablets placed by the War Department. In my haunted frame of mind they were sentinels, standing mute where men fell.

Another battle! Even on this chance road.

As I crest the ridge my lights illuminate a grand structure, 50 feet high, before it too recedes into the dark woods. A castle?

Living history at Fredericksburg
Living history at Fredericksburg©Motorcyclist

The next morning, I ride Gapland again. The castle gate becomes the War Correspondents Arch, 1896, our only memorial to journalists killed in the field. It is sited at one of those fields: South Mountain, three gaps hotly contested days before Antietam’s hell broke loose.

That battlefield is sobering, the monuments heartbreaking, and the tersest the most so. Three stacked rifles and a cookpot:

Here fought the 90th Penna. (Phila.) Sept. 17, 1862 A Hot Place

Because it doesn’t try to capture the Cornfield’s three hours of savagery—“Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens”—it therefore does. I walk alone through a quiet West Woods, once a scene of annihilation: 2,200 Union soldiers. In 20 minutes.

Blinded by fog and smoke and head-high corn, men fought desperately and died in unimaginable profusion at Antietam on September 17, 1862.
Blinded by fog and smoke and head-high corn, men fought desperately and died in unimaginable profusion at Antietam on September 17, 1862.©Motorcyclist

Just as I couldn’t take this trip in a cage, I had to take it alone. I could decide how long to sit on some secluded corner of a battlefield, U-turn to read wayside markers, or change plans after the nightly discussion with maps and brochures. But when you have a friend in Richmond, heart of the Confederacy, who not only grew up steeped in the war but is a former re-enactor and a motorcyclist, it would be foolish to remain solitary. Joe Sokohl would be my guide for two days to the sites (and great roads) he knew so intimately: Fredericksburg, Five Forks, the Namozine Church, Chancellorsville—Joe showed me the precise spot where Stonewall Jackson was hit by friendly fire, as well as the nearby grave of the Southern hero’s amputated arm. We rode down Richmond’s Monument Avenue and to the recently excavated Lumpkin’s slave jail, in one unassuming old building the cause of a nation’s bloody rupture, practically in the shadow of the Confederacy’s capital.

A curious grave at Ellwood Manor near Chancellorsville
A curious grave at Ellwood Manor near Chancellorsville©Motorcyclist

Heading north again, I pass Brandy Station, where Lee ordered a diversionary cavalry attack to hide his northern aspirations. He was on his way to destiny in a place called Gettysburg. I follow Route 15, in part the path of federal forces set to collide with Lee’s over three hot days in July 1863. Here we see the struggle in its most epic iteration. Everything that could be experienced in war happened at Gettysburg: bravery beyond comprehension; suffering; decisiveness and indecisiveness; tragedy on top of tragedy. There was no more to give, and then they gave more.

A few years ago I came here, also by motorcycle, the first time since I was a girl. I dismounted at the Virginia monument overlooking the expanse where Pickett’s division advanced into federal fire at staggering loss, and in the shadow cast by an enormous bronze Lee on Traveler, I sat down and wept. As if I might never stop. It is not an uncommon effect here. Something slams into you.

That day had been fiendishly hot, too, an aid to the imagination. The Union 6th Corps marched an unthinkable 38 miles from Maryland through the sweltering night of July 1, right into the fight.

The Cyclorama was restored and opened again to the public in 2008. A few minutes of darkness, light, color and sound, and the battle of July 3, the one from which the Confederacy could never fully recover, leaves you shaken. It was painted at a time when veterans of the battle were still very much alive. To view it now is to cross a bridge—over time itself.

I gear up under the hotel’s awning then dash through the rain to the bike. As I ride north I hear again the ranger at Gettysburg, so impassioned about history’s intricate patterns. “Why do I love history? It’s the closest I can get to time travel. That makes me feel like a kid again.”

I know what he means. I have a time machine too.

Port Jervis comes into view ahead. I go over the bridge once more. A familiar bridge waits, one I last crossed eight days and 150 years ago.