Decoding a Complex Battlefield Story – Shifting Your Mental Gears on a Bicycle

When I learned to identify landmarks while bicycling U.S. Civil War sites, my mind exploded. I had found the key to decoding a complex battlefield story.  Today, I will tell you what I learned that was so amazingly helpful to my life-long passion to understand the Battle of Gettysburg.

Hello! Welcome to Civil War Cycling.

decoding a complex battlefield story
Your Coach, Sue Thibodeau

My name is Sue. I help people make U.S. history fun on a bicycle by providing educational tools and touring tips for planning safe and fun Civil War bicycling adventures. I am also an educator, technologist, and bicycling enthusiast.

Today, the Civil War Cycling website launches with a story that explains why I think historical bicycle touring is the greatest thing since ziploc baggies. (I would say “since sliced bread,” but that might make me sound old, which maybe I am, but I’m not saying that.)

The Need – Decoding a Complex Battlefield Story

I have toured Gettysburg National Military Park at least fifty times. I camped in Gettysburg as a kid, honeymooned there as a young adult, and for over thirty years, I stopped for quick visits while driving south to visit family. In recent years, I have bicycled the park dozens of times.

Okay, so now that we have established that I am mildly obsessed with Gettysburg, please allow one more confession. Until recently, only two educational resources ever truly helped me to understand the Battle of Gettysburg. First and foremost, I loved the (now closed) “Gettysburg Electric Map.” Second, there was the 1971 (no longer in print) souvenir guide by James A. Gross and Andre B. Collins entitled, “Gettysburg.”

I consider this a confession, because I am not dumb. Instead, I am impatient with military jargon and stories that leave-out human beings. My impatience got in the way of learning even the things that I truly care about, like Gettysburg.

Shifting Mental Gears on a Bicycle

Fast forward to 2014. As I was gliding down Seminary Ridge (West Confederate Avenue) on my bicycle, I noticed that — about one mile beyond the fields on my left — I could see some tall monuments.

This was my first memory of being aware of my physical relationship or orientation to the battlefield, which was of course constantly changing, because my bicycle was moving.

decoding a complex battlefield story
The Vermont and Pennsylvania State Monuments in this photo are visible from Seminary Ridge, one mile to the west (left).

Of course, I had always (perhaps mostly) knew where I was and maybe also where I was going. But until this 2014 experience, I never really thought about how my location on the battlefield influenced what I could see; how my body felt; and whether the experience could inform my understanding of the battlefield experience of the two armies that invaded this small town of 2,400 people in 1863.

What is my point? Once I started to notice and then study Gettysburg geography and prominent (natural and physical) landmarks, the Battle of Gettysburg started to make a lot more sense to me. And it was fun. The entire learning experience became more of a puzzle, even a game. Even better, it was a game whose rules I could make and change as I pleased. Regardless, it was no longer necessary to listen to long lectures about military tactics, weaponry, and military organization. Although these topics are important, they do not light my intellectual fires.

The Solution – Decoding a Complex Battlefield Story

So in the end, I decided to change my approach. First, I observe what natural and physical structures are located where. Then I try to figure-out its meaning. Inevitably, this technique introduces real, flesh-and-blood people into the battlefield story. It cannot be otherwise. And I also become part of the story, because my flushed, sweaty, and sometimes aching body remembers how hard it was to scale those hills, too.

Check out this Gettysburg landscape photo essay …

Decoding a complex battlefield story is fun when you are riding a bicycle, especially if you have a camera. In any case, please enjoy the following simple landscape photo essay on the topic of Pickett’s Charge (July 3, 1863). Please click here:

Civil War Cycling


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