Experiential learning on a bike –
This is the first of several posts that will highlight different features of my forthcoming book, Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park, ISBN 978-1-7326038-0-6 (Victor, New York: Civil War Cycling, 2019). The book will help you to plan a self-directed bicycling adventure at Gettysburg National Military Park. Today, however, I share a few concepts from Chapter 1, “Gettysburg on a Bicycle,” where I emphasize that outdoor, experiential learning is much more than reading park signs and monument inscriptions. In fact, learning about the Battle of Gettysburg while bicycling the battlefield can be a full mind-body experience that helps inform your understanding of the underlying meaning of the battle.
Not for memorization, but for meaning
Of course, “meaning” can be a highly personal process and we may reach different conclusions. And that’s the point. On a bicycle we are active learners in search of answers that make Gettysburg relevant to your life on this day, on this bike, during this ride. It’s why I bike the battlefield many times in any given year.
Bicycling provides battlefield tourists a unique opportunity to experience in our bodies the freedoms won on the Gettysburg battlefield.
To explain what that means, let’s begin with a famous quotation from one of the heroes of Little Round Top, who with his regiment, the 20th Maine Infantry, held the left flank against the attacking 15th Alabama Infantry on July 2, 1863:
In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.~ Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1889, at the dedication of the Maine monuments in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
… come to this deathless field to ponder and dream
If you’ve visited Gettysburg and walked even a small stretch of wooded ground or monumented field, you understand the feeling that Col. Chamberlain’s memorable words convey. And yet, beyond the obvious fact that the Battle of Gettysburg produced over 51,000 casualties, it is difficult to explain why we feel that Gettysburg is sacred ground. What is the meaning of all that death and carnage? We feel it first; then we struggle to explain it, sometimes over and over again (to ourselves but maybe to others).
Chapter 1 – Gettysburg on a Bicycle
Chapter 1 of Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park begins with the Chamberlain quote (above) and then briefly explains its historical context. The chapter quickly transitions to the physical experience of bicycling the battlefield park. It explains how a bicyclist can experience the battle’s meaning in one’s own mind and body as a coordinated interplay of the concepts of “freedom” and “sacrifice.”
Freedom and Sacrifice on the Battlefield
A professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Maine, Joshua Chamberlain’s oratory skills have moved generations of Americans. His 1889 speech interwove themes from President Lincoln’s (1863) Gettysburg Address and Chamberlain’s own reflections on the battle’s meaning. Specifically, Col. Chamberlain appealed to the patriotic virtues of service, union, freedom, and law:
Having commanded a regiment at a pivotal point of the battle on Little Round Top, some twenty five years before, Chamberlain had returned to the battlefield to reflect upon the enduring meaning of “this deathless field.” In that speech, Chamberlain embraced President Abraham Lincoln’s resolve that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” He proclaimed the centrality of “service” in the preservation of “one body, one freedom and one law.”~ Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park (Victor, New York: Civil War Cycling, 2019), 20.
Freedom and Sacrifice on a Bicycle
In living rooms and indoor classrooms, we can discuss and intellectualize about the themes of freedom and sacrifice. But not on a bike, where physical, experiential learning (not abstraction) is the driving force.
An outdoor classroom
While riding on park avenues, bicyclists think about bike maneuvers (pedaling, gearing, turning, gearing). They also soak in the Gettysburg landscape (its hills, swales, breezes, and grassy aromas). This explains why Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park is not a traditional history book. As a guidebook for outdoor, experiential learners, the book tends to the visual needs of the bicycling history buff. It provides color maps, labeled landscape photographs, and easy-to-understand descriptions of the battlefield and battlefield events of July 1–3, 1863. The book lets the Gettysburg landscape and its monuments teach about the Battle of Gettysburg.
It is common for bicyclists to crave the thrill of riding freely and on own’s own power, in own’s own way. And yet the Gettysburg battlefield offers much more than a scenic ride. It rewards bicyclists with an unmatched experience of personal freedom on the very same land on which 170,000 soldiers fought.
Freedom is what inspires the bicycling historian to study and ride. At Gettysburg, a bicyclist is free to set a course, and then pedal hard – as through Rose Woods – or glide along flat pavement – as through The Wheatfield or the gentle roll of Seminary Ridge. A bicyclist can also “fly” down Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top, experiencing the terrain in an exhilarating way. I have toured Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) countless times over the past few decades. In recent years, I discovered the thrill of bicycling the park’s 6,000+ acres, with its breathtaking mix of trees, fields, hills, and swales. Park roads wind through an “outdoor classroom” that is home to 1,300+ monuments and 400 refurbished Civil War cannons.~ Ibid, 20. (Click here to browse Civil War Cycling’s PDF maps and map bundles.)
Find your “why” in your body
The act of pedaling creates a “space” inside your body to “ponder and dream” about that “something” that stays on great fields, as Col. Chamberlain described it. In one sense, pedaling is a physical sacrifice that both expresses and creates personal freedom. Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park puts it this way:
In 2012, I toured the Gettysburg battlefield on a bicycle for the first time. In Chamberlain’s words, I had “come to this deathless field to ponder and dream,” but little did I know – until I rode the battlefield – what an amazing, liberating experience it is to feel the Gettysburg landscape in my body. While struggling to pedal up Little Round Top or Culp’s Hill, for example, I could better appreciate the physical challenges of the soldiers who fought to claim those hills. While riding along Seminary Ridge, I could see how the land’s rise at the Sherfy Peach Orchard blocked the Confederate view of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The experience informed my understanding, not only of battlefield events in 1863, but also my personal connection to the meaning of those events. In other words, for me it was all about enjoying the freedom born of physical sacrifice.~ Ibid, 21. (Click here to browse Civil War Cycling’s PDF maps and map bundles.)
The guidebook, Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park, will be available for purchase on March 11, 2109. Digital companion maps are available for immediate sale and download as PDF files.
Please visit “Selecting Your Gettysburg Bicycle Route” for short descriptions of fourteen bicycle routes and links to the Civil War Cycling shop. There you will find pages for purchasing Gettysburg Digital Map Bundles and individual Gettysburg Maps.