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