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Helga Ross

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Civil War Trails: Lost in the Wilderness
by Helga Ross   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, May 06, 2005
Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

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The Wilderness. I know you. I love you. You scare me.

- the Park Service really ought to brush up on the navy blue paint!

"Virginia is for lovers" so the saying goes. This one is true - a slogan that lives up to the advertising. I love Virginia for its majestic mountain vistas, its unsullied Eastern Shore, its popular golden beaches, having made separate trips to each, previously. I love Virginia most of all because of its History. I'm intrigued, in particular, by the fascinating, heartbreaking Trails of Civil War fame. I've wanted to pursue them for almost a decade.

My man finally takes me there, not because it means much to him, but because he loves me. This trip is for me. What more could I wish for? I love him for accompanying me; I'm grateful and euphoric.

The route we take along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, even to the outskirts of Pittsburg, is surprisingly scenic - far more rustic and rough-hewn than I would have expected. My gaze follows the rise and fall of the rugged terrain the way a man's eyes linger on a lissome woman. As we gradually descend the foothills and Maryland's pastoral velvet-green pastures my anticipation rises. We cross the Potomac - the mighty river that once divided the Nation culturally and physically, defined a great army and its' movements - I, with a lump in my throat.

We are in Old Virginia. This northernmost part of Virginia looks like it's supposed to, just as I imagined. I am relieved that the 20th Century has not wreaked havoc with it. Luckily, here, neither did the last. It's not difficult to turn the clock back in the mind's eye. The Confederates routed an intended Yankee sneak attack nearby at Ball's Bluff and sent the invading Union soldiers tumbling back into the river, many to their drowning deaths. Today I stand in awe at the edge of this precipice: it's a long way down to the bottom. Under fire I wouldn't give you anything for a man's chances.

I'm charmed with Loudoun County and the attractive town of Leesburg, having yet to meet a National Register Historic Downtown I'm able to ignore. Well, we have to stop and stay somewhere. This is the place! Such communities captivate me. Evidently not only me. A lifetime resident tells me the town is the fastest growing in Virginia, from 1400 to 28,500 since she was a child, most of the influx recent. Understandable - I'd move here, myself - The trick is not to get carried away and ruin it with over-development and bad planning.

Lightfoot 'Restaurant' is a singular setting in the newly renovated, historic, Romanesque Revival, People's National Bank building; scene of a memorable evening of wining and dining in celebration of my long-anticipated arrival. The service is attentive and impeccable, the food divine.

The following day, first, it's on to Manassas, where I stand like a stone wall beside General Jackson and get my picture taken for posterity. Good going, my dear photographer - Just far enough away that you have to know it's me, to know it's me. If we zoom in on me, we'll miss the better part of Stonewall.

We continue southwest for a short visit to Culpepper before pushing on to the heart-stopping part of the trip - The trail of U.S. Grant's Final Campaign across the Rapidan. Historic Highway 3 takes us to the Wilderness and Chancellorsville and finally, Fredericksburg, where we'll stay. We're at the beginning of those "Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor May - June 1864", so marvelously documented by Noah Andre Trudeau. The book is an as-it-happened, you-are-there, page-turner, employing the eyewitness accounts of both Yankee and Rebel soldiers. A struggle that logically should have been short-lived, you'll find yourself enthralled at the series of keen chess moves of General Robert E. Lee, by which he prolonged the war for nearly a year.

This particular route and the adjacent National Military Parks are so much like I pictured them that I wonder if I've been here before, in a former life. Perhaps the reason it so captures my imagination....

We stop next at the Wilderness, at Saunders Field, across which Union forces charged and temporarily broke the Confederate position on its' western edge on May 5th, 1864. They drove the Rebels into the woods where fierce fighting ensued in the most fearsome conditions.

There is a two-mile walking trail that begins and ends here at the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter at Saunders Field. It traces the Gordon Flank Attack made on May 6th by one of my favorite Confederates, Brigadier General John B. Gordon, an audacious and fearless fighting man, a Georgian. The attack proved successful for a time, driving two Union brigades from their positions, until sunset ensued and that opportunity was lost. According to the signposts we should allow an hour and a half for the self-guided tour. My guy says we'll be back in half an hour. ...Well, okay - We're armed with our trusty maps.

The autumnal Wilderness woodlands are beautiful, tranquil, and colorful. The trail is well maintained. There's no problem with visibility thanks to shafts of sunlight that stream down through the treetops and along the perimeter of the forest where they fix the boundaries for us. (Not so for those poor soldiers). As we walk along I marvel at the evidence of entrenchments from the battle, nearby. Shortly we meet a hiker coming the opposite way who informs us to watch for those blue markers on the tree trunks and we'll have no trouble finding our way. Further on, a couple we encounter warns of a confusing section of trail ahead of us. Keep to the bend. If we find ourselves at a dead end and a riding stable we'll know we've gone the wrong way. We come to a fork in the trail. It's not clear which way to go. Which bend? We go left.

Damn. There's that riding stable! I'm horse crazy so we stop to stroke the beasts while we're here and ask the young riders in attendance exactly where we are. They don't know. How do we get back to the entranceway and Saunders Field? They have no idea. Never heard of it. Highway 3? Orange Turnpike? Civil War...? No? Nothing. Not the first time in America I've run into inhabitants who don't know where they're at.... How is that? It always amazes me.

We do the sensible thing and retrace our steps to that same fork in the road, then take the bend right. We seem to be making progress until I suddenly notice a spot that looks awfully familiar. I know we've passed this way before. I guess we're on our way out of these woods having seen only half of them. That's okay by me, by now. I just want to get out, altogether. As we continue working our way out - by no means a mean feat - the Park Service really ought to brush up on the navy blue paint - I start to have visions of the "Blair Witch Project". My worthy trooper, Canadian born and bred, is a steady compass, with nerves of steel, thank goodness. An inspiration to me. I remain calm, if somewhat shell-shocked. By the time we exit the Wilderness it's been an hour and a half, for sure, and dusk approaches. I sigh with relief. Does my hero appear a bit shaken, himself? I can't believe it when we meet a guy about to cheerfully embark, at this late hour, into those woods on his own. Well, if he runs into trouble, or disappears altogether, he can't say he wasn't warned. He just laughs, goodnaturedly, when I tell him so.

Once safely and comfortably settled in Fredericksburg it's easier to think back fondly on the experience. Literally lost in the Wilderness. Without having to face any of the awful conditions those soldiers faced. Quite a place. I tell you, I have renewed respect for it. I'm not sure I could be persuaded to do anything more than admire it from a safe distance, hereafter, without an entourage.

The next afternoon, a balmy Indian Summer day, we lunch outdoors in Fredericksburg, overlooking the Rappahannock and watch an artist working there on the riverbank with his palette and easel. I'm feeling very mellow and contented to be here. He may be painting but I'm imprinting. I like to absorb the mood and the setting of a situation and hold onto it. So I can bring it back whenever I want to. The Wilderness. I know you. I love you. You scare me.
Don't let anyone mess with the Wilderness. Make sure the developers out there get the message.

Meanwhile, we're on the way to Chancellorsville....

Web Site: Passions in

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Reviewed by Doug Leja (Reader)
Beautifully phrased,conjuring up memories of my own trek over the same terrain not too many years ago.
The author's profound love for this area is immediately apparent and she wears it proudly on her sleeve,as it should be.I was hampered by rain and forced to drive The Wilderness,but the rest was on foot.A Magnificent and important place which MUST be preserved,unlike Gettysburg where KFC outlets impinge on the very borders of the very battlefield.At least,they had the good sense to tear down the garish observation tower,a real eyesore from any vantage point.Manassas has been threatened by real estate developments.
The Wilderness,God and man willing,should be always maintained as it was.Wonderful writing.
Reviewed by J Michael Kearney
My late father was a real Civil War buff. I believe his family came here near the start of that war and were literally sent from the boats to the battlefields. We went to Gettysburg when we were kids. To me, it's a sad part of American history. Slavery was already dying, in fact the Confederate Constitution made international slave trading illegal. The South feared being overrun and made an appendage of the acquisitive, industrial North. The South did not want a strong centralized government (federalism) and the North insisted upon it, for protection of the growing American corporate structure. As someone who believes the original Constitution was the best of all existing documents for the governance of man, I lament the South's loss, even though my ancestors bled for the North. // Fine writing!
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