History’s mysteries, from above

This year marks the 150th anniversary of a momentous year in American history. Events in and around 1863 changed us forever and left their traces on the land. We pilots have a “box seat” over such visible history in places we fly.

The Civil War’s 1863 Gettysburg battlefield, for instance, is in extreme southern Pennsylvania, and a mere taildragger hop from my old job at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Maryland. Frederick, 50 miles north of D.C., is near where four states meet — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. It’s a fascinating area, the intersection of conflicting Civil War territories, beliefs and strategies.

Did you struggle through history class trying to make sense of it all? I did, with all those battle diagrams of places I couldn’t — at that age — “place.” After signing on with AOPA, I learned that the small mountain range through the area was key to much of it.

Harper’s Ferry on the Potomac River was just 20 miles north of the bridge I took from Virginia to work every day. Flying to work on a Saturday, it was easy enough just to continue further northeast along the mountains. Soon, you’re searching along US Route 15 for the battlefield southwest of Gettysburg. Distances were surprisingly close — easy for even my dowdy old Aeronca.

Then, something caught my eye: Monuments and more monuments. This was it. From a respectful distance, I could identify Big and Little Roundtop — the strategic hills where Union defenders turned the battle. But all of it was there: The opposite ridgeline from which the Confederates based their attack, the broad field of Pickett’s Charge between them. All now made sense.

There was more to discover. Searching another day for our office manager’s home in a narrow valley northeast of Harper’s Ferry, I crossed the tight double formation of mountain ridges to find the scene of the late 1862’s big bloodbath, Antietam. It’s a spot REALLY off the beaten path near Maryland’s Sharpsburg (the Confederate’s name for that battle, the war’s deadliest.)

There it was. And again, it made sense. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had invaded Maryland along that same mountain chain in their first, brief foray into Union territory. In the crucial next year of 1863, they got some 80-100 miles further northeast to Gettysburg — the “high-water mark of the Confederacy.” That would be their last large-scale attempt to encircle Washington and split the Union in two.

Judging from misaddressed envelopes that arrived at AOPA, some of my fellow pilots don’t know the difference between Frederick, Maryland, and Fredericksburg, Virginia, both players in the Civil War drama around Washington.

So if you’re passing through sometime, why not explore the area just north of Frederick so key to our nation 150 years ago?

From the air, you’ll get the picture — and a geographical insight the ground-bound struggle to comprehend. You’ll have that box seat all along the low, lovely Catoctin Mountains (Bull Run Mountains in Virginia) as they run northeast to Pennsylvania. From Bull Run (the war’s first big battle) to the decisive clash at Gettysburg… there’s some poetry in that.

Just be sure to check NOTAMS and charts. Avoid P-40 around the Camp David presidential retreat. It (and much more) is in those mountains!


© Drew Steketee 2013 All Rights Reserved


  1. John C says

    I just took my Scout Troop to Gettysburg a couple of weekends ago. Despite reading the Killer Angels and having flown over the area a few times from my home airport (MRB) it was an incredible visit. We hiked the Billy Yank trail, went through the museum and the cyclorama. We will be going back next year to finish off the Johnny Reb trail, the Eisenhower Farm and pay our respects at the National Cemetary.

    For those who want to fly in, the Gettysburg airport (W05) is still there just off to the west along Lincoln Highway or the Chambersburg Pike past Herr’s Ridge where Buford’s Cavalry established pickets against Heth’s brigade coming in from Chambersburg. Transportation is available (rental car, bus) or you can use shank’s mare just like the soldiers did back in the day but unlike them bring plenty of water!

    However you get there, it’s a very interesting piece of American history and well worth the time to visit.

    • Bill says

      Good Job Drew
      It’s too bad someone has thin skin and has to take a negative view on your article. An intelligent analytical assessment of you words and another’s view of them make it obvious
      that he is the one trying to “rewrite history” His statement “if you want to spout your opinions about the Civil War” show that he is ,or others are, the ones hung up still trying to re-fight the Civil War. They miss the real message of the joy that our ability to fly freely across this great land brings.

  2. Phil says

    I agree with Jeff. Kent, if you want to spout your opinions about the Civil War, find an outlet other than General Aviation News.

  3. Edd Weninger says

    Thanks for that.

    I’m an avid reader, and despite a career in engineering and business, history has always been one of by favorite subjects.

  4. Jeff says

    With all due respect Kent, this is not the place to put forth revisionist history of the Civil War. I read posts and blogs for aviation, not politics.

    • Bill Geary says

      Drew, what a great article. Back in 1957-58 I was stationed on a Submarine in Norfolk,Va and hitched from there on weekends to Buffalo,NY to see my Wife. I was so fascinated with the rich Civil War history of the area, especially after traveling up Route 15 through Pa, that I took my wife to Gettysberg on our honeymoon from Buffalo. The serene beauty of the area and monuments dedicated to this hallowed ground and brave warriors are some of our blessings
      woven in the fabric of what has made our country so enrichened. Thanks for the memory.

  5. Kent Misegades says

    Before you go, read the book Gray Fox by Burke Davis, one of the best authors on the War of Northern Aggression. The movie Gettysburg, which can be streamed from Youtube, was filmed on location, and will help prepare you for your visit. It helps to understand the carnage at this and other battles of a war caused by Lincoln’s tyranny and desire of northern industry to subjugate the South and prevent it from exercising its constitutional right to secession. More details on what really happened in a tragic, unnecessary war that cost 700,000 lives can be found in John Denson’s A Century of War.

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