On an average day, when the weather is clear and the temperature is above 40 degrees, the main road accessing the southern portion of the battlefield sees a lot of use by locals: runners with iPods around their forearms; cyclists in their spandex pants speeding down the road; walkers leisurely following their dogs along the earthworks. I cannot remember a time when the sun was out and there wasn’t anyone out and about along this historic piece of ground.
But that isn’t why this road was created.
Among the historians here, this road has been a point of contention. We recognize that it’s used more by the locals for recreation purposes than by our visitors for educational purposes. Its long, hardly interrupted corridor lined with forest vegetation makes it a safe and encouraging location to stretch those desk-tired muscles.
Due to the nature of my job, I, too, am on the road every day—not to mention the fact that I live along the road, too. So, I’ve become familiar with the gentleman who walks his Great Danes every afternoon around two o’clock. Or the woman with the long braid who won’t say “no” to the rain that tries to stop her from running.
Parking lots are consistently full, but not with cars tagged from Kentucky, Idaho, or California. No, they’re all from Virginia. They are here to enjoy the outdoors.
One hundred and forty-nine years ago this week, the men along the line here weren’t enjoying themselves too much, though. Confederate soldiers under the leadership of Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson lined this piece of high ground in anticipation of a Union attack. After the 13th, the ground was also occupied by the dying corpses of Union soldiers after their unsuccessful attack.
This failure of Union troops to push completely through the Confederate line ended in what is now known as “Lee’s Most Decisive Victory.” For General Burnside, it was arguably his most embarrassing moment in the war.
Today, visitors can view refurbished earthworks lining the road, they can walk up to the knoll that General Lee claimed as his headquarters, and they can stroll along the forsaken lunettes, or cannon pits, located at Prospect Hill.
They will most assuredly encounter many locals, too: joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, people out for a leisurely stroll in an uninterrupted green space.
Don’t get me wrong. By no means am I perturbed by the high recreational use of the road by many locals. On any other day, on any day that wasn’t December 13th, I would encourage cyclists and runners to explore this historic land, its road and its trails.
But after how many jogs, rides, or strolls does a road become simply…a road?
Yesterday was the 149th anniversary of the brutal attacks against this position. Approximately 9,000 soldiers were killed, went missing, or became seriously wounded. Nine thousand souls—gone.
As I drove along the Lee Drive for routine work, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same people I see almost every day were aware of this. Did they realize that, during the time they were squeezing in their daily 30-minute workout, lives had been forever changed years prior? Did they realize that, had it not been for the sacrifice given in one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history, there would not be a nice, recently paved, safe road to exercise on—let alone many other things?
And yet what makes yesterday’s date so different from, say, today? Or next week? Shouldn’t we be in remembrance every day we drive on this sacred tract of land? I say “yes,” but I believe anniversaries will never stop holding powerful clout as we remember certain occasions.
I don’t think this park will ever ban the recreational use of its roads, nor should it. But I do hope that its users take a little extra time to exercise their minds with the knowledge that this is sacred ground, that the asphalt-covered road is, indeed, not just a road. It is a pathway that takes us back to a defining moment in our heritage. It is a pathway that reminds us of where we’ve been and where we should never go again.