Day Three: Tours

By Ian Isherwood ’00, Field Correspondent

Like Bob Dylan, we tour every year.

Our Civilwarpalooza started at 7:15 AM, a bracing hour, when our tour busses loaded and departed for Virginia. A sixth bus left later for Monocacy, their late rise something envied by us all.

(Sidebar: It has been exactly one year since I have used a clipboard. The experience of checking in attendees, ticking their names off my list with a sense of invented authority, perhaps one of the most satisfying of bureaucratic activities.)

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Our tours today:

The Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House (Introductory Tour) with Brooks Simpson
The Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House (Advanced Tour) with Keith Bohannon and Eric Mink
Staff Ride: The Wilderness with Christian Keller
Fredericksburg: A City of Hospitals and a Community at War with John Hennessy
The Battles of Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek with Jonathan Noyalas
The Battle of Monocacy with Brett Spaulding

I attended the Bohannon/ Mink advanced tour of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. The tour was expertly crafted and thoroughly enjoyable. Eric Mink gave us an introduction to the campaign on the way down the Route 15 ‘heritage corridor’. This slice of eastern America is choc full of historic sites pockmarking a region that has become increasingly dominated by suburban sprawl. I am not mentioning this as polemic, rather a statement of dichotomies between old and new, history surrounded by neon-signed-detritus.

The Wilderness in which we entered can still be felt, it’s foreboding denseness intimidating, though it has no doubt changed significantly since the time of the brutal battle in May of 1864. Our tour began on the historic Orange Turnpike. We walked on old abandoned roads on which whole armies moved in 1864. The point was immediately apparent: the Wilderness was a strategic race to dominate approaches. Armies needed to move to win, or to prevent the movement of their enemies, to survive.

We lunched at Ellwood, a historic house that played a prominent role in the campaign serving as headquarters for several generals. The site was a lovely place for a picnic lunch. Historic homes have a tendency to dress up turkey sandwiches and potato chips.

From Ellwood we drove through the Wilderness stopping for Bohannon’s account of Hancock’s attack on the Orange Plank Road and Longstreet’s counter-attack. ‘Lee to the rear’ was dramatized the way it should be: a moment reflected upon by a historian who contrasted the existing sources of an iconic moment to show us, not only that such a event actually happened, but also, that it’s happening is something still debated in terms of both its specific details and overall meaning.

From there we went to Spotsylvania, Eric Mink setting the stage in the bus along our way. On site, Bohannon and Mink took turns explaining the battle’s stages and complexity: the attacks at Laurel Hill, the Bloody Angle, and the overall frustrations of the Army of the Potomac. Of particular note was Eric Mink’s tour of Jubal Early’s trenches deep within the woods, fieldworks which thwarted Ambrose Burnside’s assault on May 12, 1864. The intricacy of the Confederate works is still clearly defined in the terrain. It was a very revealing tour.

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Then we had dinner at Cracker Barrel which had its own revelations. Our attendees expertly negotiated their country platters.

It is the sad nature of things that even though I live in the midst of a battle-scape, I spend precious little time on battlefields, my own as well as others. Today reminded me why it’s important to do so.

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