How you arrive at a Civil War battlefield is as important as what you see once you get there.
I always try to arrive by the route of march--as I did on a recent trip to Cedar Mountain, a clash fought near Culpeper, Va., southwest of Washington, in the opening days of the Second Manassas Campaign of 1862. Leaving D.C., I swung east to make it to Orange and pick up the route of Stonewall Jackson's march from Richmond. It was this way that I found myself driving on a road that stuck closely to the old Orange & Alexandria Railroad route--a major artery of antebellum Virginia.
I crossed the Rapidan a dozen or so miles upstream from Raccoon Ford--where, a week before the battle, a 1,000-strong column of Federal cavalry sought to determine Jackson's location. I stopped at the county courthouse in Orange where Yankee and Rebel cavalry fought with pistol and saber in the town's narrow streets.
Leaving Orange, I recrossed the Rapidan and picked up Jackson's route. For two years, in the mid-1980s, I participated in reenactments at Cedar Mountain. During those days, the Inskeep family, which owns much of the eastern portion of the battlefield, allowed reenactors to use portions of the original battlefield. I remember vividly marching down the western slope of Cedar Mountain, across the South Fork of Cedar Run, and through maturing cornfields. But I knew little of the actual events.
On my return as a tourist more than a decade later, two historical markers on the right side of the road welcomed me back. Since Cedar Mountain is not a state or federal battlefield park, I had studied the battle with maps and books beforehand so I'd know where to go, superimposing my readings on the modern road system.
I parked across the road from the markers at Carousel Antiques. After dashing across the highway to read the markers, I returned to the antiques store, where an elderly woman named Margaret Addison welcomed me. As my eyes slowly adjusted from the bright sunshine outside, Addison went around turning on small lamps that illuminated books, photographs, paintings and porcelain figurines. I browsed the shop and selected what I considered the best of the figurines as a present for my girlfriend. Slowly, with great care and purpose, the proprietress wrapped the figurine and tallied my purchase on an antique cash register that rang when the drawer popped open.
The door banged shut behind me the way doors of country stores always seem to do, and I set off to explore local roads, hoping to discover some new feature of the battlefield: a marker, a house, a view--something, anything, that I hadn't seen in my reenactor days. It was my lucky day. I turned left at the next road going toward Culpeper, a road promising because of its name: General Winder Road. (Usually roads named for combatants are found in battlefield parks, not in undeveloped sites.)
It turned out the road is a connector between U.S. 15 and the Old Culpeper Road that Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry" used to reach the battlefield. At a bend in the road, I spotted a short monument in the tree line flanked by two ornamental shrubs and surrounded by an iron fence.
The monument records the casualties incurred by both sides at Cedar Mountain: Confederate 1,369, Federal 2,263. A few steps away, facing north toward the position of the Federal advance, I found a new marker that summarized the entire battle, a part of the Virginia Civil War Trails signage that helps interpret local sites throughout the Old Dominion that are not part of formal parks.
These monuments occupy the center of the battlefield, nearly equidistant between both flanks, also the site of the original gate to the Crittenden farm that led from the main road to the farmhouse. The Confederate line was almost broken at the gate, if not for Jackson riding forward, drawing his sword and rallying his men. Crittenden's Gate was the key to the Battle of Cedar Mountain the way Little Round Top was to Gettysburg. To hold it meant victory, to lose it defeat.
After poking around a few more roads, including Old Culpeper Road (Route 657), Flat Land Road (Route 649) and Babytown Road (Route 642), I drove north to Culpeper in search of the Museum of Culpeper History--closed on Sundays, but I wanted to see where it was so that, on a return trip, I wouldn't have to hunt for it. I discovered the streets of Culpeper rolled up on the Sabbath.
I didn't find the museum that day, but I did find that the town of Culpeper predates the Civil War by a long stretch, tracing its heritage back to the birth of the nation. (Gathering from nearby villages, the Culpeper Minute Men marched to Williamsburg in 1775.) I also found that the historic downtown area retains a solidly 19th-century character but also has a sports bar, music and book stores, coffee shops, antiques and craft shops and quiet restaurants. I found, in other words, things to explore the next time I march this way.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Cedar Mountain is about 90 minutes from the Beltway via I-66 west to U.S. 29 south; take the bypass around Culpeper to U.S. 15 south and the battlefield is about six miles south. (To follow the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Culpeper to Orange, from the bypass take Route 3 east a mile to a right on U.S. 522, and then follow Route 615 to Orange. From Orange, go north on U.S. 15 about 14 miles to Cedar Mountain.)
BEING THERE: The Museum of Culpeper History (540-829-1749, closed Sundays), which has exhibits on the battles of Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain, is at 140 E. Davis St. in old downtown Culpeper. A walking tour of the town should include the Culpeper County Courthouse, on the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Cemetery. Carousel Antiques (540-825-1558), owned by Margaret Addison and Peggy Hyde, is six miles south of Culpeper near the intersection of General Winder Road and U.S. 15 in the heart of the Cedar Mountain Battlefield. In Culpeper itself, try Ace Books and Antiques (540-825-8973) or Quail-at-the-Wood Antiques (540-825-2595). A monument to Company D, Fourth Cavalry, Little Fork Rangers, CSA., stands in front of Little Fork Church (circa 1731, a right turn on Little Fork Church Road as you head north on U.S. 229 from Culpeper). To arrange tours of Salubria (circa 1743), an outstanding Georgian-style home, call ahead: 540-399-1356.
WHERE TO STAY: B&Bs around Culpeper include Fountain Hall Inn (540-825-8200) and Hazel River Inn (540-937-5854). Bigger chains are found on routes 29 and 15, including Comfort Inn (1-800-228-5150) and Holiday Inn (1-800-465-4329).
WHERE TO EAT: Lord Culpeper (540-829-6445) serves Sunday brunch downtown from 11:30 to 4. If it isn't Sunday (or Monday), It's About Thyme (540-825-4264) serves European country cuisine for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. South of town, the Aberdeen Barn (540-825-1037) offers a lunch buffet Monday-Friday.
DETAILS: Contact the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-285-7373 or www.culpepervachamber.com. For more on Virginia's Civil War Trails program, call 1-888-248-4592 or check http://civilwar-va.com.
Now's the time to plan that fall weekend out of the loop (or Beltway, at least). Here's an idea for Oct. 16:
Tilghman Island Day: an engagingly laconic celebration--in home-cooked seafood, music, boat races and demonstrations--of the engagingly laconic (and fast receding) watermen's culture at the end of the road that takes you from U.S. 50 through St. Michaels, Md. There are skipjack races and docking contests and music by Bird Dog & the Road Kings in the park opposite the Tilghman Volunteer Fire Co.--sponsor, beneficiary, chief cooks and bottle washers of the event. (Many show up just for the ladies auxiliary's steamed oysters, oyster stews and fritters, crabcakes, crab soup and soft-shell clams.) Call 410-886-2677 for more details; a $5 donation (for those 12 and older) covers all exhibits, events and shuttle bus trips.
CLARIFICATION: Our visit last month to Charlottesville turned up vast numbers of University of Virginia grads lurking quietly among "Escapes" readers.
A dozen alumni revealed themselves--in an eerily concerted way, actually--to appreciate our visit and, in unanimous amiability, to point out that (contrary to what we said): that wide expanse of lawn between the Rotunda and Cabell Hall is called "The Lawn"; that "undergraduates" (not "students") who aspire to a room along The Lawn are "fourth year men and women" (not "seniors"); and that there are no 18th-century buildings on "the grounds" (never, ever "campus"), the oldest structures dating to about 1820.