Friday, September 9, 2011

On to Charleston! Bicyclist-teacher takes in Civil War sites, rolling scenery

Michael Ahern, 35, a social studies teacher at Brighton High School in Rochester, N.Y., rode his high-tech bicycle nearly 800 miles from Arlington, Va., to Charleston, S.C., stopping at Civil War sites along the way. The Aug. 1-16 trip was part personal challenge, part fund-raiser for the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., and part research time for the classroom. The Picket spoke with Ahern about his adventure, which included encounters with about 15 dogs. He rode an average of 50 to 60 miles a day, though some were much longer. The Adventure Cycling Association provided some of his maps.

Q. Why did you make the trip?
A. I wanted to do something physically challenging and I thought about incorporating an educational component and a fund-raising component. I had been to a number of battlefields growing up. I wanted to visit more for my own professional development.

Q. What was the most difficult stretch?
A. Virginia, with rolling topography around Fredericksburg and Richmond. There are constant rolling hills. Once you got on the other side of the James River, it was pretty flat going into North Carolina.

Q. What scene do you most remember?
A. Guinea Station, Va., the “Stonewall” Jackson shrine. I got there in the morning about a half hour before it opened. There was still a lot of mist and it is a rural setting. It was a pretty intimate scene. To go into that house and see the original bed frame, quilt and mantel clock -- that was the neatest. Also Cold Harbor in terms of seeing the earthen trenches that are still intact. You get a sense of what both armies were facing on that day. Grant’s tactics changed after that and he began using his army differently at Petersburg.

Q. What were your stops?
A. Arlington; Fredericksburg, including Mayre’s Heights and Prospect Hill; “Stonewall: Jackson shrine; Seven Days in Richmond, including Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill; Cold Harbor; Fort Fisher, North Carolina; and Charleston. I was hoping to hit more, but logistically I was under the gun for time.

Q. Who were the most interesting people you met?
A. I spoke to a couple of rangers at Cold Harbor and Fredericksburg. I did not know there was house to house fighting (at Fredericksburg), some of the first of the war. Until then, it was about keeping civilians and property out of it. There were five newspapers and they were vocal on their thoughts on the war. That area was kind of fascinating to me. In upstate New York, we tend to associate pressure being on Lincoln and on the North, especially in December 1862. In Fredericksburg, because of emancipation there was a lot of pressure on the Confederacy with the Union (army) being after Richmond.

Q. Are kids interested in the Civil War?
A. I am somewhat realistic. I feel if I can get a handful of kids a year interested in it, that’s a win for me. With instant gratifications and distractions, I am hoping to present them with information that if it doesn’t resonate with them (immediately) they will come back to it. My big message is if you are passionate about something, do it, live it, embrace it. I view the Civil War as analogous to the blues in music. Without blues there would be no jazz or rock ‘n roll. Without the Civil War, we would not have history as we know it. You can’t understand the 20th century unless you learn how we changed. The Civil War is the aquifer that has fed our history. It always resonates, always there.

Q. What do you hope the 150th anniversary of the war will bring?
A. To commemorate and reflect and have an appreciation for what Americans have gone through. What they sacrificed and have an understanding of that. Everyone at some point in their life should go to a battlefield or a national military cemetery. It has had a tremendous impact on my life.

Q. What battlefield would you like most to see for the first time?
A. I would like to investigate the Nashville and Franklin (Tennessee) area a little bit. It’s intriguing because of (Confederate general) John Bell Hood. An interesting guy throughout the war. What was going through his mind as far as that battle is concerned.

Read more about Ahern's adventure

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