Friday, April 15, 2011

Civil War Trenches...and Ultrarunning

Image credit here.

Several years ago (1999 or 2000) I was on an extended site survey trip to Fort Lee, VA that lasted for about 7 weeks.  Thank goodness I was able to return home to southern PA every weekend. 
Fort Lee is located in Petersburg, VA, and is immediately adjacent to Petersburg National Military Park.  In fact, the two are physically contiguous, an attribute that I took advantage of in my running.
After a day of “manhole diving” (i.e., entering communications manholes underground to document cable routing) I would change into my running clothes and head on foot from the Fort Lee side into the battlefield.  The battlefield contained a one-way driving tour road right up the middle, with a decent array of trails existing on both sides of the road.
Petersburg National Battlefield Park exists to preserve a huge array of Union and Confederate trenches and earthen forts—presaging WWI some 50 years in the future—where the two great eastern armies were stalemated for some 9 months in 1864-1865.  Petersburg was the key to Richmond: if Petersburg fell, so would Richmond, and indeed that is what happened in the early spring of 1865 when the Confederacy finally collapsed.
Anyway, there is a well preserved array of trenches that exist today.  It is amazing to me just how close the opposing trenches were at certain places.  The driving tour hits many of the historically interpretative highlights, as do some of the trails.  The battlefield closes at dusk, and the National Park Service rangers were sensitive to the danger of relic hunters working the battlefield at night.  So their daily routine, which I became aware of,  was to carefully lock up the entry gate to the one-way road, patrol the length of the road, then lock up the exit gate at the other end.
With my work schedule I was usually pressing against that dusk deadline to get a decent run in.  One late afternoon I was able to get in a 10 miler but I had taken a wrong turn and it was getting dark.  I was running on a trail adjacent to the entrance road, paying attention to the trail as I headed back to the Fort Lee side, when suddenly the headlights of the ranger’s patrol car were nearly upon me.  The trail right at that point happened to be crossing a set of trenches perpendicularly, so I instinctively dove into one of the trenches to avoid detection.
I laid there for a moment until I was certain the ranger had indeed passed by…and had the thought that it’d been some 135 years since anyone had sheltered in that trench.  I laid there a bit longer, savoring the irony, that here I was, a scholar of American Civil war history (in fact, I’ve had a couple of articles published), getting down and dirty in a genuine Civil War trench.  In the twilight I could not tell whether it was a Union or Confederate trench, but I suppose that was unimportant.  In fact, it was more symbolic that I didn’t know, because it really didn’t matter. 
I wondered if human beings had died there at that actual spot where I laid.  Certainly soldiers had hugged the earth in fear for their lives in that very trench, for to raise your head in the daytime was to invite a bullet to the brain…and in the 1860s there was no such thing as neurosurgery.  You died. 
At length, and by now it was past dusk, I got up and headed back the half mile or so back to Fort Lee.  The trail was wide and sandy, easy to follow (at a walk) even without a flashlight by the remaining ambient light.

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