Wednesday, September 16, 2015

New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (Blog Hike #547)

Trails: (unnamed)
Hike Location: New Market Battlefield State Historical Park
Geographic Location: New Market, VA
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A pair of walking tours through a Civil War battlefield.
Park Information: http://www.vmi.edu/vmcw/

Directions to the trailhead: In northern Virginia, take I-81 to US 211 (exit 264).  Exit, but instead of taking US 211 east, go west on SR 211.  In only 0.2 miles, turn right on George R. Collins Parkway.  The parkway deadends in 1.1 miles at the Virginia Civil War Museum, where this hike begins.  Park in the blacktop lot in front of the museum.

The hike: It was the spring of 1864, at the start of the Civil War’s fourth year, when Union Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant set in motion a grand strategy to finalize a Union victory.  The strategy called for a three-pronged southward offensive.  Grant himself would lead an army south out of Washington D.C. into northeastern Virginia to attack General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Union General William Sherman would lead more forces west of the Appalachians toward Chattanooga and Atlanta.  In between, Union Major General Franz Sigel would lead an army of 10,000 men into the Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Virginia’s agricultural economy.
            Realizing the threat posed by Sigel’s advance, Confederate General John Breckinridge summoned all available forces, which included cadets studying at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in the southern Shenandoah Valley.  On May 15, 1864, Breckinridge’s forces met Sigel’s forces at New Market, VA.  Though outnumbered more than 2 to 1, Breckinridge employed an aggressive strategy that made heavy use of the VMI cadets.  At the end of the day, Sigel was forced to rapidly retreat northward to Strasburg, VA, and Breckinridge won one of the Confederacy’s last major Civil War victories.
            Today I-81 runs through the midst of the historic battlefield, but the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and adjacent New Market Battlefield State Historical Park tell the story of the battle.  The museum features artifacts and dioramas from the battle, while the state park offers two walking tours that access all of the battlefield’s major points of interest.  Combining the two walking tours using a pedestrian tunnel under I-81 forms the hike described here.  Note that a small admission fee is charged to access the grounds, so make sure you check in at the museum before heading out.
Start of western walking tour
            The walking tour starts at a gap in the split rail fence to the right (east) of the museum.  The mowed-grass trail heads northeast toward the battlefield, and the historic white Bushong Farm buildings visible straight ahead are your first destination.  Off in the distance Massanutten Mountain towers 1400 feet above you, thus giving this hike scenic as well as historic appeal.  The mountain was covered in fog on the unusually cool summer afternoon I came here.
            Just shy of 0.2 miles, you reach the Bushong Farm.  The federal-style home built by Jacob Bushong dates to 1825.  The Confederates occupied the area around the farm, while the Union held the land to the north.  The Bushong family hid in the cellar during the battle, and both the house and barn served as hospitals in the battle’s aftermath, a common practice during the Civil War.  The historic farm site consists of 11 structures including 2 historic homes, a barn, a blacksmith shop, and a wheelwright shop.
Bushong homestead
            You have to make a decision at the Bushong Farm.  The 1 mile western walking tour you are on continues straight, and this description rejoins this tour later.  To also tour the eastern part of the battlefield, turn right and walk through the concrete pedestrian tunnel that passes under both lanes of I-81.  I was disheartened to find the modern interstate built through the middle of an historic battlefield, but such is the situation.
            Now east of I-81, the eastern walking tour starts by heading down the original Bushong Farm driveway.  Red cedar trees now line this historic lane.  At 0.35 miles, the trail curves left to leave the driveway and head north toward the Union’s battlefield position.
Original Bushong Farm driveway
            After dipping through a small grassy hollow, the rolling mowed-grass trail reaches the 1905 stone monument to the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.  The 54th Pennsylvania was the last Union regiment to retreat, and they suffered one of the highest casualty rates of the battle.  A small parking area that serves the monument provides an alternate place to access the trail system if desired.
54th Pennsylvania monument
            The trail ends at the monument, so next you must retrace your steps to the Bushong Farm and turn right to continue the western battlefield walking tour.  The walking tour next passes the Woodson Monument, a small concrete plaque erected in 1905 by veterans of the Battle of New Market.  The monument honors Company A of the Confederate 1st Missouri Cavalry, which lost 40 of its 62 men in the battle.
            Continuing north, the trail exits the farm site and enters an area called the Field of Lost Shoes.  This area was the Bushong’s wheat field, and the 3 days of heavy rain that preceded the battle had turned the field into a muddy quagmire.  Thousands of soldiers charging over the field exacerbated the issue, causing many soldiers’ shoes to get sucked into the mud.
            At 1.3 miles, you reach a cannon that marks the Union’s main line during the battle.  The trail curves left here and climbs slightly to reach another cannon and a two-track gravel road.  We will eventually turn left on the gravel road to head back for the museum, but first turn right and walk a short distance to a well-constructed west-facing overlook.  This overlook provides a nice view of the North Fork Shenandoah River some 120 feet below you while the Allegheny Mountains rise in the background to the west.
Overlook of Shenandoah River
            Back on the gravel road, the final southbound segment back to the museum is rather unexciting.  The route gives a close-up view of the Bushong Farm barn.  The Civil War-era barn was destroyed by fire in 1939, so this barn dates only to 1940.  A relatively flat walk across more open field brings you back to the gap in the split rail fence, thus concluding the hike.


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