Friday, October 29, 2010

Made It! Our Last Leg, from Gettysburg to the Goal Line

Four months to the day from when we left Seattle, we rode onto the Mall in Washington DC.  What a great feeling!

But more about that later -- let's start where we left off, in Gettysburg.  This is quite a place, the site of the largest battle ever in North America.  Of the 160,000 soldiers who fought on the two sides, over 11,000 died here, almost as many people as the entire undergraduate population of Cornell University!  Then there were those who did not die but were wounded or captured, another 45,000 or so, and you have a number equal to the entire population of Ithaca and several of its surrounding cities!  It all seemed a little more real to us knowing that the brother of Louise's great grandfather, Frederick Cutter, was killed here fighting to preserve the Union.

We arrived mid-day, having had a fairly easy 30-mile ride from York, and cycled down park roads through the area on the northwest edge of town where the 3-day battle began, seen first above as it looks today and below as it was painted shortly after the battle.  A nearby cannon shows you how close the battle was to the center of town, which was not much smaller then than it is today.

The town also looks much as it did then, with numerous buildings around town bearing witness to the battle, some with stories, some with battle scars as well.  Although the fighting raged all around, amazingly only one civilian was killed, a woman who was shot by a bullet that came right through her wooden front door.  The square in the center of town is particularly well preserved, including the Wills House on the left side of the photo below, the home where Lincoln stayed the night before his Gettysburg Address, which he polished and practiced that night in his bedroom.  On the street below is this realistic statue called Return Visit by J. Seward Johnson which utilized a death mask and a cast of Lincoln's hands made a year or two before his death to be accurate down to those details.  The statue was so convincingly real we had to touch the "wool" sweater to be persuaded it was actually bronze.

The next day was rainy, so we spent as much of it on the computers at the town library as we were allowed to get away with, then walked around downtown getting a feel for the town and taking breaks for Jeff to speed-read Michael Shaara's compelling novel about Gettysburg, Killer Angels.   Louise read it a few years back when we attended a series of lectures at the University of Washington on the Civil War, and we both agree that it is a most compelling read.  It certainly made our time here more meaningful.

Our last day in Gettysburg was a full one, half spent at the National Park Visitor Center and half walking the battlefield.  The Visitors Center had an excellent film explaining the three days of battle and then Lee's withdrawal back to Virginia.  After that you troop upstairs to the Cyclorama.  There were once hundreds of these around the world, bringing places and events to people in a world without movies and TV.  It's a 370-foot-long painting that surrounds you, giving you a 360-degree view from a specific point on the battlefield in the middle of Pickett's Charge.  Soldiers who were there commended it at the time it was painted in 1884 for its accuracy.  Its realism is enhanced by a three-dimensional foreground of actual dirt and objects that flow right into the painting (sorry about the color of that third photo from the Cyclorama illustrating that, the camera's white balance just wouldn't cooperate for that shot).

After the Cyclorama we found enough great exhibits downstairs in the museum to keep us busy another hour or two, including these slave manacles and a pre-war pamphlet explaining how slavery is "ordained of God."

We took one walk through the National Cemetery with a park ranger, here showing us the monument at the heart of where the soldiers were buried.  This was actually the first national cemetery in the U.S., inspiring many others such as the one created soon after in Arlington.  The cemetery is on a hill already named "Cemetery Hill" at the time of the battle due to a neighboring resting place for the citizens of Gettysburg, but they got no rest during the battle as Cemetery Hill  was the heart of the Union position for those three days.  The National Cemetery is on the southeast edge of town, and you can see how close to town the battle was in the second photo we took here, from the position of the red brick tower on the right, part of Gettysburg College on the far side of town, and the white column to the left, where the first day's fighting occurred.

The third day of battle was dominated by Pickett's Charge, a suicidal assault by over 12,000 Confederates on a Union position that was just too strong.  It was pictured above in the Cyclorama, and you can see part of the field they attacked as it looks today in the first photo below, including rail fences that had to be climbed over while tens of thousands of Union soldiers were shooting at the Confederates with cannons and rifles.  The second photo is one of the stone walls that Union soldiers hunkered behind while shooting at the attackers.  In less than an hour, more than half the Confederate attackers were killed, wounded or captured, and Robert E. Lee's army would never again attempt to attack north of the Potomac.

We had conflicting information about which day Frederick Cutter died, the second or third day, but with some help from the internet we were able to find the monument to his regiment, the 32nd Massachusetts, located where they fought on the second day of battle.  They had their fiercest fighting on this day, defending a position just north of Little Round Top.  The entire battlefield park is filled with monuments of every sort and design, and the one for Frederick's regiment was in the form of a pup tent, with engraving on the sides of the tent.  It was a stunning October day when we visited, far different than the hot humid weather of July 2, 1863, and time has softened the horror of this place.  There was a comfort in the beauty of this place now, where he died so far from his home in Weston Massachusetts.

 After three days at Gettysburg, just like Lee we decided it was time to move South.  But unlike him, we took one last look from a tall lookout tower the Park Service has erected across from Little Round Top, the hill that doesn't look all that big from over here but which loomed so large in the battle on the second day of Gettysburg.  Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain famously held the last position at the end of the Union Army near the right edge of this shot, and Frederick Cutter, our ancestor, fought close to the base of the hill, near the center of the photo.  The next picture was taken near the base of the tower by turning 180 degrees around to look over to the farm that Dwight Eisenhower bought after he retired from the U.S. Army in the late 1940s, and as you can see it is quite close to the battlefield.  He spent a lot of time at his farm during his presidency, and loved to take world leaders to the National Park to explain the battle to them.  Then Charles DeGaulle came as a visitor, and surprised Ike by knowing as much about the battle as he did.

Our route south took back roads, many of them taken by the retreating Confederate army and/or by the pursuing Union soldiers.  We found a wonderful route using a bike map of the greater Washington DC area, even out here 50 miles from the capital.  Besides riding over a Maryland covered bridge, we also got to ride down this odd country road, paved only in the center.  When two cars approach, each proceeds with its right wheels on the hard-packed dirt.  Saves a lot of asphalt, but we've only seen one other road like this in all our travels, in a remote part of Australia!

After a night's stay in Frederick MD, we headed to the Potomac.  Alongside the river is the C&O (Cumberland and Ohio) Canal.  The westernmost part of the canal, in the Georgetown section of Washington DC, was actually begun by a company founded in part by George Washington, but the canal never made it to the Ohio River.  It did get as far as Cumberland MD, 186 miles from DC, but a storm in 1924 caused so much damage that it was closed thereafter.  As you can see, it requires a little imagination to see where the canal water once flowed.  Many mountain bikers ride the old towpath, but as you can see from the photo on the right, it's not a particularly friendly surface for a skinny-tired bike like ours.  We're hoping to walk some of the canal towpath when we get to DC for our month of sightseeing, so perhaps we'll have some more images in a future blog entry.

There used to be dozens of ferries across the Potomac, but today only one remains, White's Ferry.  As you can see, it runs on a cable strung across the river, and cost us all of $3, $1 each and $1 for the bike.  At least ten feet higher than the river sits a small store, but the walls of the store tell an interesting story about how big some floods can get in this valley!

Five miles from the Potomac we picked up the W&OD Trail, named after the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad that once ran trains here.  Today it is a 44-mile railtrail that brought us into Arlington, where we connected to another bike trail that connected into yet another bike trail which brought us to within a mile of the apartment that is to be home for the next month.  In short, the last 40 miles of our trip were almost entirely on bike trails, out of Washington's notoriously thick traffic!  What a pleasant way to arrive!

Well, 3,022.9 miles from our start in Toledo Ohio, we're finally ready to stay still for a while.  For the next month we have an apartment rented on Mintwood Place NW, a terrific location that's within a mile of three Metro (subway) stations, within walking distance (about 2 miles) from the White House and the closest of the Smithsonian museums, and in an attractive building on a quiet and equally attractive street.

 What's next?  We plan to see a lot of museums, memorials and the like, interspersed with some biking (especially out to Mt. Vernon, a 20-mile bike ride almost entirely on bike trails), and walking (to the C&O Canal and other spots around the edge of town).  We'll write a blog entry a month from now showing you the best of the best, then take you along by blog as we take Amtrak to visit Jeff's daughter Rebecca in Austin TX for Thanksgiving, then continue by Amtrak to Los Angles where we have another month-long stay booked, this time near Louise's son Brian.  Thanks for following our travels thus far, and Happy Trails to you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post! I was recently in both Gettysburg and Maryland, but not with a bike, and you have peaked my interest in making my return visit by bike - or a least, partially by bike. I love the trails you found heading into Washington - can you let me know where you found the information that you used to find the trails and to plan your route? Thank you again for sharing your wonderful adventures! I look forward to reading your next installment.