story and photography by Beau Allen Pacheco
“Any understanding of this nation has to be based—and I mean really based—on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. The revolution did what it did, our involvement in European wars…did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are, and it opened us to being what we became—good and bad things. And it is very necessary if you’re going to understand the American character in the 20th century to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-19th century. It was the crossroads of our being and it was a helluva crossroads.”
—Shelby Foote, speaking in Ken Burns’ production of The Civil War
I walked alone on the path to the Appomattox courthouse, the place where Ulysses S. Grant rode to meet with Robert E. Lee and talk of ending the terrible war, in which both were commanders in chief. It was early evening, and I had been riding hard all day just to get here. The Electra Glide, resting in the parking lot, crackled as it cooled off, and my boots crunched on gravel. Road weary and muddy, I was in the same repair as Grant on April 9, 1865, when he passed this way on his magnificent horse Cincinnati to meet Lee. I could feel the emotion that must have been brimming in the soldiers who, standing at attention, lined this road on that historic day. But now all was quiet and I was glad nobody was around who might invade the reverence of my moment. This was turning out to be one of my all-time greatest rides.
Fortunately, as important as this ride was historically, I was also able to see some of the most beautiful parts of the planet in their autumn glory—the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah Valley. The scenery here is so stunning that trying to photograph its majesty is futile. You know how that works. No matter how great the photos turn out, and no matter how much your friends fawn over them, you know in your heart that you didn’t quite capture it—not even half of it.
From the time I first saw the Ken Burns’ production of The Civil War on PBS, I was hooked on the history of this defining moment in American history. The tragedy of it, the scope of it, and the importance of it were irresistible to me. Having been born and raised in the far western states of Colorado and Nevada, where local history was about the Pony Express, the Comstock, the Indian wars, and the Donner Party, I was amazed to discover such things as the bitterness of the people in Vicksburg, Mississippi, who refused to celebrate the fourth of July until 1958. As a newcomer traveling down South, I could appreciate the devastation of Sherman’s march to the sea.
At the time of Burns’ first broadcast of The Civil War in the summer of 1990 I was master of ceremonies for the Rider Rally in upstate New York. I had ridden an Electra Glide to the rally from Colorado. Every evening after the parades I would rush back to my room and watch the next installment of Burns’ 11-hour classic. I was so taken by it that when the rally ended, I decided to see for myself some of the places where it happened. I took the long way home, riding down the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge all the way to Memphis, then to New Orleans, Houston, and back home to Colorado. It was one of the most memorable trips of my life. However, as long and beautiful as that ride was, I didn’t have time to stop and savor as much as I would have liked, and vowed that someday I’d return and immerse myself in some battlefields and other landmarks.
A few years later I did some of that when my brother Darrell returned a grizzled veteran from Desert Storm. He and I visited some of the battlefields between his home in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. But the more I saw, the more I wanted to see, so this trip would include the battlefields between the area of my home in Tennessee and Gettysburg. I do not claim to be an authority on the Civil War. There are people who have dedicated their lives to the study of single battles like Antietam, and over a hundred books are published about the war every year. There are tens of thousands of reenactors who are intimate with that unpleasantness of the rebellion. I am merely a Harley-riding traveler, an interested person, who wants to ride those historical roads, so I’ll try to lay out the best route to cover the most significant battlefields from the western theatre up to Gettysburg.
Also, I’ll attempt to suggest how long it will take to see these battlefields. To experience any one battlefield could take a lifetime or 15 minutes depending on your level of curiosity and craving for photography. My suggestions are merely to give you a loose guideline for planning your trip along the most scenic roads.
If done with reverence and thoughtfulness, this is one of those rides that can transcend tourism and become life changing, or at least life affirming. If you are really interested in American history then I suggest that you do this ride by yourself or with someone who shares your interest in the Civil War because there will be many occasions when you’ll crave privacy—it could be at a cemetery at sunset, a sunrise on the Blue Ridge or the witnessing of a small flag waving in the middle of a battlefield. Whatever it is, I guarantee that there will be moments of reflection that you’ll wish to explore in quiet solitude. Prepare for those times.
1. Go buy Ken Burns’ DVD box set The Civil War and watch it two or three times. In my opinion, it’s a great documentary and easily the best introduction to the history of the Civil War. The Civil War, a film by Ken Burns, is available from Amazon.com for $114.99.
2. Buy the soundtrack to this film and listen to it as you ride through the Shenandoah Valley and battlefields. The Civil War—Traditional American Songs And Instrumental Music Featured In The Film By Ken Burns: Original Soundtrack Recording, available from Amazon.com for $12.97.3. Read any book about the Civil War by Shelby Foote. Example: Stars in Their Courses—The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863 by Shelby Foote, available from Amazon.com for $13.57.
4. Take binoculars on your trip, and don’t rush it. Plan on at least two weeks for this ride, and do it when school is in session, preferably in the autumn.
—I started at Fort Donelson in Western Tennessee for a couple of reasons; first, it’s close to my home in Tennessee, and it was the first big victory by U.S. Grant thus launching his career.
—The battleground is on the Cumberland River and the views are spectacular. The national park guides and rangers are extremely knowledgeable as are all the guides with whom I chatted. Tour time: 2.5 hours.
—Next destination: Battle of Franklin, Franklin, Tennessee, approximately 130 miles.
—From Fort Donelson take 49 South, 13 South, 70 East, 96 East.
—Battle of Franklin: Visit the bullet-riddled Carter House in downtown Franklin. It’s a very good museum, the tour guides are excellent, and it gives you an immediate sense of the terrible slaughter of this last major battle of the war.
—Tour time: 2 hours. To visit the Confederate Cemetery add 1 hour.
—Next destination: Murfreesboro, and the Battle of Stones River, Murfreesboro, Tennessee,
approximately 55 miles.
—From Franklin stay on 96 East all the way to Murfreesboro, and follow the signs to Stones River.
—Battle of Stones River: In percentage this was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and a turning point for the Union. The video at the Tour Center is highly informative. Reserve time to walk or drive the circuitous tour routes.
—Tour time: 2 hours. To drive the paths and visit monuments add 1 hour. To visit the cemetery add 1 hour.
—Next Destination: Chattanooga Campaign; Chickamauga, Lookout Mtn. Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga, Tennessee, approximately 180 miles.
—From Murfreesboro take 231 South, 64 East, 41 Southeast to Chattanooga.
—Chattanooga Campaign: This is where Grant was finally promoted to Commander of the Union Army.
He said of it, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.” The Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Parks encompass most of the battles fought in The Chattanooga Campaign. These battlefields are spectacular, and be sure to walk to the actual jutting rock at Lookout Mountain and see why they called it “The Battle Above The Clouds.” Tour time: 10 hours.
—Next Destination: Beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, approximately 154 miles.
—From Chattanooga, take I-75 North to Cleveland, TN, 40 East, 411 East.
Enter the Blue Ridge Parkway at Gatlinburg and head north.
—The Blue Ridge Parkway is useful as verdant causeway on the way to Gettysburg. Many of the pivotal battles of the Civil War are in the Shenandoah Valley, including Fredericksburg, Manassas (Bull Run), Lynchburg, and many more. There were 14 major battles and 325 military engagements fought here, making this beautiful valley the cradle of the Civil War. Also, Appomattox Court house is in this valley.
—Next destination: Appomattox Courthouse, Appomattox, Virginia.
—From the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, ride North to Virginia 221/460 East to Appomattox.
—Appomattox Courthouse: Lee surrenders to Grant, virtually ending the war.
—Tour time: 2 hours.
—Next Destination: Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, approximately 165 miles.
—Return to the Blue Ridge Parkway North to Maryland 45. From the Northern portal of the parkway at Waynesboro, continue north on
Skyline Drive all the way up to Front Royal. From there take I-66 West, I-81 North, then Maryland 45 East to Antietam.
—First Civil War battle fought on Northern soil, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history.
—Tour time: 5 hours.
—Next destination: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, approximately 65 miles.
—From Antietam take 66 North, 60 North, 16 East to 116 East.
—Gettysburg is a pivotal event in American history. Visit everything here.
—Tour time: 15 hours.