When viewed from a high hilltop, the vast expanse of Pennsylvania land that makes up the historic Gettysburg battlefields appears to have few secrets.
Tall bushes and a cluster of rocks seem like small hiding places for the Union and Confederate armies that fought here in July 1863 in the bloodiest confrontation of the Civil War.
But crossing the terrain by foot or bicycle reveals the subtle slopes and turns that made the wide-open spaces of Gettysburg such a complex and perilous arena for battle.
Bruce Rice, a licensed Gettysburg guide who leads bicycle tours through the national park, believes pedaling the hills gives visitors a deeper understanding of what it meant to fight there.
“You get to experience the ground, the lay of the land and so many important sites in the battle,” said Rice, who works for Gettysbike Tours, a 6-year-old bicycle rental and guided tour outfit just inside the park’s visitor center. “When you’re in a car, you’re in a cocoon; you don’t know when you’re going uphill, you don’t feel the physiology.”
Fall is perhaps the best season to take a tour because the weather cools, the trees change colors and the crowds thin out, Rice said. He, of course, recommends traveling by bike, although other tour groups transport visitors via double-decker buses, horses and Segways.
“Any time’s a good time when you’re on a bicycle!” Rice laughed during a tour last month.
Gettysbike offers a comprehensive 13-mile tour that takes visitors around the battlefields and into town over the course of four hours.
A 7.5-mile, two-and-a-half-hour tour caters to riders who want to skip the town and its traffic, are pressed for time, are accompanied by young children or simply want a shorter ride. It sets out later in the day and focuses on the areas where the Northern army waited for the Southern troops and the path of the Union’s retreat.
That tour follows a meandering loop punctuated by several stops, where the guide describes the pivotal three-day battle that put an end to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. The story continues as the group pedals, with the tour guide speaking into a microphone patched into ear pieces worn by the riders.
During last month’s tour, Rice narrated the scenery and pointed out details in the landscape, while keeping the group focused on the significance of its journey.
Monuments are scattered throughout the park, and some were erected by veterans as soon as 15 years after the battle, according to Rice. The tour’s first stop was the Pennsylvania Memorial, the largest of the markers commemorating the Union regiments that fought at Gettysburg.
From the observation deck of the 110-foot-high granite pavilion, Rice pointed out a view of the Peach Orchard, behind which the Union soldiers took position until falling prey to Confederate fire.
He then led the group down a winding road, shaded by an umbrella of trees and bordered with sculptures erected in honor of the fighting regiments: a sleeping dog, a cross, a drum, a fallen man.
The cyclers rode through the Wheatfield, which absorbed the blood of fallen soldiers, and to Devil’s Den, a cluster of boulders and a site along the Union’s path away from the advancing Confederates.
The bike tour then continued up a
127-foot hill to the peak of Little Round Top. Union soldiers ran up the long, steep slope to position themselves for defense, but Gettysbike’s website warns that some riders might prefer to walk their bikes up the incline.
From the vantage of Little Round Top, riders could gaze down on open fields that resemble the farm landscape of the late 1860s, as well as a backdrop of rolling hills. Cannons — many of them authentic — dot the land.
The last stop was Cemetery Ridge, where the final surge occurred. Commonly known as Pickett’s Charge, it was at this point that the Union soldiers drove back the advancing Confederate Army with severe casualties. The next day, July 4, Lee began withdrawing, ending the battle.
In the frenzy of the fight, the Union soldiers piled rocks on an existing low wall of stones to keep the rebels at bay. A portion of that stone wall remains, and the cyclists dismounted to walk over and touch a piece of history.