A Run Along North Anna

NARSign-smI tighten the laces of my sneakers, stretch my calf muscles, and head down the path toward the battlefield at a brisk walk. After a hundred yards or so, the path takes a steep tumble over some landscaping timbers set into the hillside as a stairway, and at the bottom, I begin my jog—although to call it a “jog” is charitable. It’s more like huffing than jogging, and I’m certain I look like I’m suffering the throes of childbirth. To run is to suffer, always. Even after years of doing it. I keep waiting for that zen experience so many runners talk about, where they get into the zone and just go, but for me, running only triggers dread. Yet still I run.

I’m at the North Anna, a small battlefield park run by Hanover County along the south bank of the North Anna River. In the spring of 1864 during the Overland Campaign, it offered the strongest natural defensive position for Robert E. Lee’s army as it tried to fend off Ulysses S. Grant’s advances. Since the beginning of that May, the armies had brutalized each other and exhausted themselves through three weeks of continual combat, maneuver, and bad weather. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania. By the time they raced to the North Anna, the battered armies were at their lowest, and the physical and mental toll began to show on the commanders themselves. They got sloppy.

The path through North Anna Battlefield Park, heading toward Ox Ford

Lee set a trap a trap that an overanxious Grant stumbled into, yet Lee, gripped by fever, was too sick to spring the trap. Grant slipped away in time. The massive battle of North Anna unfolded and fizzled—and then largely got forgotten, book-ended as it was by the grievous losses at Spotsy and Cold Harbor earlier and later in the month.

This evening is no different. It’s mid-May, so tourist season hasn’t started yet, and all the Overland attention is still focused northward. Aside from a couple back in the parking lot, whose business I make it a point to ignore, I have the place to myself.

A moss-covered part of the path takes me over a culvert. The trickle of water will meander through the forest, I’m sure, then empty into the North Anna. A stagnant, pollen-covered pool looks like part of the stream has a tough time flowing anywhere—even downhill.

It reminds me of a field trip here with the interns and seasonsals one year when the sky opened on us. “Just like during part of the battle,” I’d said, trying to find some kind of history-geek silver lining. Indeed, it rained on the armies torrentially during the opening engagement here. “This is the wettest I’ve ever been on a battlefield,” a friend announced—an amazing feat considering the amount of time he’d spent as both an interpreter and a reenactor. For my own part, I’ve been wetter standing at the base of Niagara Falls—but that might be about it.

I huff my way back upslope. There’s an interpretive marker partway up the hill. Just make it to the marker, I pant. Make it to the marker and you can take a breather. Make it to the marker. I huff my way there—then plod on past. I hate lying to myself like that because I know I will eventually stop believing myself, and then what will I do to push myself for those extra little bits I need?

Don’t worry about it now, I tell myself. Just concentrate on not dying.

It’s not even that bad, and I’ve not jogged that far.

The original Ox Ford Road trace
The original Ox Ford Road trace

Somewhere along the way, the embankment of the original Ox Ford road trace comes rising out of the woods on my left like a breaching whale. Then a small fork in the road leads me to the Confederate works, which come running out of the forest on my left and wind along the hill like the last low dips on a rollercoaster track. The two-mile hiking trail runs parallel to the inside of the Confederate position. It represents about a quarter of the entire Confederate line, which apexed at the river and then V’ed back to the southeast before following a ridge due east.

Much of that land to the east remains undeveloped; however, much of the land to the west of where I’m at—land that Federal soldiers had attacked across—has been subsumed by a commercial gravel pit. Just beyond the treeline in that direction, a man-made ridge looms along the border of the park like an earthen tsunami risen up out of the gravel pit, ready to crash into the battlefield. The sheer bulk of it, glimpsed through the trees, intimidates me. Hell, I think its bulk intimidates even the sunset, which seems to be trying really hard to slip past its crest unnoticed.

I can’t be too mad at the gravel company. The county park, which opened in 1996, wouldn’t exist at all if the company hadn’t chosen to set aside these 80 acres for preservation. The gravel company even provided the gravel for the path I’m jogging on.

My shoes chuff in that gravel with each step, and the neon yellow laces of my sneakers flash just in front of me in the gloaming. Flash. Flash. Flash—though at the pace I’m plugging along at, it feels more like flash……flash……flash…….

The Confederate earthworks at North Anna are some of the best-preserved in the East.
The Confederate earthworks at North Anna are some of the best-preserved in the East.

The usually deep greens have been bleached by the fading light into shades of gray and charcoal. If not for the earthen ridge to the west, the sun would still be high enough to lance sideways into the forest, but dusk comes earlier here because of it. Evening has filled the woods.

I have colleagues who’d give me a heap of shit for jogging out here. “It’s not what a battlefield is for,” I hear one of them say. That comes up a lot when we talk about visitors at Spotsy. The vast majority of them show up to jog or bike or walk their dogs. The leaf-cover that canopies the road provides plenty of shade, and the road is smooth and well-maintained. The Civil War might just as well have been fought for the opportunity to create a convenient greenspace there.

I’ve chosen North Anna precisely because it’s a battlefield, though, not just because it’s a park. New way to see it, I huff. Two birds with one stone.

Oh, Lord, I can’t even think in complete sentences. Whose idea was this, anyway?

At the end of the trail, an overlook extends over the edge of the bluff, offering a glimpse of the North Anna River below. The trees grow thick here, and the dwindling light has sapped all the sparkle from the water, so it’s hard to see much river.

Along the riverbank of the North Anna River, looking toward Ox Ford
Along the riverbank of the North Anna River, looking toward Ox Ford

I hop down from the platform and get ready to resume my jog when a man rounds the bend wearing a camo jacket. I can smell cigarette smoke off him from ten feet away, as if the guy just rolled around in an artillerist’s powder magazine and then ignited himself. Where he came from, I have no idea; at my pace, I should’ve passed anyone on the trail who’d arrive at this spot so shortly after me. He seems utterly unconcerned with me, though. I give him a nod as I pass and then pick up my pace to a jog to put some distance between me and the overlook. I don’t feel threatened at all, nor do I feel the need to run away from the guy, but I don’t want to find out the hard way, either, that he’s really Slender Man in disguise or something, teleported here in the middle of the woods to eat my soul.

I curse the slight uphill rise, away from the river, that suddenly catches me off guard. It’s long and straight—the worst kind. No mental trickery will get me over the top; I just have to do the distance. Grit it out. Don’t give up.

I should be grateful for every foot of this pathway. This battlefield could simply not exist at all. That would suck, I think. Then I chuckle, amused at the complicated little mindgame I’m pulling on myself in order to make it to the top of the rise: I need to feel grateful for the battlefield and complaining about it at all is really me being ungrateful and so I should feel guilty about that and stop my bellyaching about having to run here because the alternative could be that there would be no “here” and how would I feel about that?

I make it to the top of the rise. I feel like I want to pitch over sideways into the bushes and suck air for a week. Instead, I keep going.

That’s what the Overland Campaign was about, anyway, right? Keep going.

I intend to jog it out along this line if it takes all summer. Or evening.

Keep going.

Never give up.

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