Touring the Civil War by Bike

Touring the Civil War by Bike

Alexandria's archaeologists map out a 12-mile bike ride to the city's Civil War forts and batteries.

At Alexandria Archaeology’s headquarters, the present is transparent. On Museum Educator Ruth Reeder’s Civil War era map of Alexandria, a spare network of primary roads — Little River Turnpike, Leesburg Pike, Braddock Road, Janney’s Lane — bisect blank fields and gray forest. The Seminary is there on Quaker Lane. The few dozen farmhouses outside the grid of Old Town are signified with black boxes.

But I needed a route I could follow, so Reeder pulled out a transparent overlay and laid it across the historic map. Little River Turnpike became Duke Street. Leesburg Pike became King. Forest and woods burst into the twisting spaghetti of residential streets. The blank spaces filled.

On Saturday, Oct. 14, Reeder will be leading a free bicycle tour of the Alexandria that lies beneath the transparency. Riders will follow the roads that parallel the rifle trenches that ran between the forts that defended the city’s turnpikes in the Civil War, they’ll detour to some of the houses that were represented as black boxes on the old map.

Two days after seeing the map, an hour after dawn, my shadow spills across the grassy meadow that unfolds behind the George Washington Masonic Memorial on Shuter’s Hill. One hundred and forty-five years ago, the hill’s views of Duke and King Streets influenced the Union Army to begin construction of a fort on its crown a day after invading Alexandria in 1861. The meadow where I stood used to be Fort Ellsworth, a bustling morass of earthworks and timber, then, condos and townhouses now.

But history is more than two layers deep, and in some places — like the peak of a prominent hill that for thousands of years was shaded by hickories and oaks and carved by the flowing water of a spring — you can fall into it endlessly. I didn’t know this as I stood in the field, my sneakers absorbing the dew, but archaeologists have discovered a spear point and hand axe that suggest 5,000 years of human activity on the hill.

It was just as well that I was ignorant of this as I stood at the monument’s Matthew Brady Civil War era panoramic photo of the city. Folding together the overlaps between then and now was easy enough, a matter of picking out the steeples of Downtown Baptist Church and St. Mary’s, the still perfect alignment of King Street running towards the river. But reconciling the shining expanse of Cameron Run with the uninspired brick and glass of office buildings, or the orderly rows of army tents with the blinding sun-flash from the roof of the metro station and the windshields of the cars stacked up at a stoplight, was a process I would have to pedal into.

SO I BEGAN. Passing beneath the roaring girders of the King Street Metro Station, navigating the rush hour traffic intersection beyond, to reach the city’s cemetery district — formerly on its outskirts, now swallowed up in buildings. It’s impossible to overstate how small our country’s first National Cemetery is. If you dropped the fence of a slightly-larger-than-average suburban yard over the country’s second attempt in Arlington, the enclosed plot of bright white tombstones would be a fair representation of Alexandria’s brick-walled, sadly optimistic cemetery. I set my bike down and walked amid the rows of tombstones, blank from a distance and revealing only a number, name and state on closer review, trying to understand something about the relationship of death and statistics. I failed. But I did feel the texture of one sun-and-shadow splattered stone. It was soft and gritty. The names are eroding.

On my way out, I pedaled past the blank industrial wall of the Convention Freight Services warehouse, the abrupt boundary of the old graveyards. The route brought me among the sharp-cornered brick townhouses of Old Town Village. The pool-house at the development’s center was built to resemble the railroad roundhouse, the end of a line that made Alexandria a major staging area, “where,” in Reeder’s words, “the resources were: the troops and supplies, and the dead and the wounded coming back. We had many, many makeshift hospitals, and cemeteries that quickly over-flowed with the dead.”

FROM THE EDGE of Old Town the route took me through the fertile valley beside Cameron Run. Forts on the highland bluffs in Fairfax and Alexandria menaced this tempting approach to the city and the Potomac River beyond. On the old map, I would have passed through fields that abutted the cemeteries, a farmhouse with a cluster of out-buildings, more field and forest. As I pedaled along John Carlyle Street and Mill Road, the booms of soaring cranes segmented the sky, steadily clothing the skeletons of new high-rises. The city’s shelter and substance abuse center sat across from a gaping foundation hole.

When I left behind the construction sites, I heard the noise of falling water in Cameron Run mingle with traffic on Interstate 95, which runs along its opposite bank. I passed townhouses, residence hotels, stacked signage for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, a water park and a miniature golf course on land that had been left fallow when Southern sympathizers fled their farms. Where the houses were low, the bluff was visible over my right shoulder, I would soon be climbing up to the forts.

WHEN I TURNED onto the Holmes Run bicycle trail, which follows the tributary to Cameron Run, I passed beneath trees that did not exist in the Civil War. The Union soldiers cleared forests for firewood and construction materials, and what they couldn’t use they brought down anyway to create clear fields of fire.

“They chopped everything down and just left the splintered stumps,” Reeder had told me.

One tree was an exception, an oak with warped, soaring limbs. A plaque estimated it was almost 300 years old. Turning off the trail onto Latham Street, I entered a neighborhood of 1950s era homes — bricks, siding and neatly trimmed lawns. The neighborhood was built on 115 acres that had once belonged to the Gregory family. When I passed the Gregory house, its owner Ross Atkinson was standing in the front yard. He agreed to photograph the house for me because his boisterous but well-trained black lab Major was loudly warning me not to step on the lawn. Ross said the house’s caretaker during the war, a man named Auld, was buried in the backyard.

AFTER THE GREGORY HOME, my adherence to the route broke down. I missed the cul-de-sac that used to be Fort Worth. There is no trace of the fort, except for a pre-existing house that had been abandoned by its owners and subsequently incorporated within the walls (“Imagine when you come home and you find that your estate has this earthenwork fort around it,” Reeder mused). I also missed a never-before-seen rifle battery that has survived as someone’s backyard. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, the owner of the house has invited the riders to have coffee on his patio while they listen to a lecture by Fort Ward historian Wally Owen.

I DID VISIT FORT WARD, now incorporated into a city park. The six cannon in its recreated north-west bastion could fire on Little River and Leesburg pikes. Now the northern bastions can provide point-blank enfilading fire on an open-air amphitheater. The cleared land around the fort is studded with picnic tables and grills and a playground. I carried my own layer of history to Fort Ward Park. When I was in pre-school and kindergarten in the early 1980s, my father (studying at the seminary) and mother brought my brother and I to the park, for cookouts they tell me now, though I don’t remember grills.

As I grew up, and the iconic memories of my childhood grew dismayingly transparent, the white-washed logs of the recreation, the cannons I used to straddle, the bridge we used to run screaming across in fear of the troll beneath, became all-encompassing symbols of who I used to be. After a quest to understand a city’s course through time, the unsought opportunity to understand my own course at a place unchanged by time left my mind floating free as I pedaled home through the comfortable suburbs around Janney’s Lane. These houses and lawns sit where wild forests had flourished for millennia. But the trees that shade them began as saplings sprouting beside stumps that stretched as limitless as headstones, victims of the Civil War’s firing fields.