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A trail ride becomes more exciting when it’s a ride through history, as well as through scenery. A defining time of our nation’s history was the Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865.
Today, most Civil War battlefields are preserved for walking, and some have driving tours. But the few with bridle trails let you see the battlefield from the unique perspective of those who fought there.
Here is a rundown of the six battlefield which allow horses on the grounds and how to make the most of your visit.
Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA
History: Gettysburg, arguably the most important battle of the war, is certainly the most famous. Over three days in July 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s second effort to invade the North failed at the cost of more than 50,000 casualties. Ironically, the battle ended on July 4. While the war continued for nearly two more years, the Confederates never recovered from that defeat.
Parking: You may park for the day at McMillan Woods. It fills quickly in the summer and on weekends, so plan accordingly. There are no other immediate options, although you may be able to make arrangements with Artillery Ridge Campground (see listing later in this section).
Before you ride: Spend several hours at the park’s visitor center to learn what soldiers and civilians endured before, during, and after the battle. Pay the additional fee to experience the cyclorama, a life-sized, wrap-around diorama of the last day of the battle with sound and lighting effects.
Map: The Bridle Trail map is available at the visitor center. You can also download it from the park’s website.
Bridle Trails: The park is operated by the United States Park Service, but the bridle trails are largely maintained by volunteers of the Gettysburg Equestrian Historical Society. An ongoing project if restoring the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. The trails are rocky, so horseshoes or hoof boots are recommended.
Overnight stabling: Camp with your horse at Artillery Ridge Campground, adjacent to the battlefield. Their accommodations include paddocks and well-maintained stalls. The large campground features plenty of camping spots, a washroom, and a camp store. Or you can arrange for stabling for your horse and stay at a hotel in town.
There are two horse hotels in the area. Pheasant Field Bed and Breakfast is located about an hour away in Carlisle, PA. This B&B in an 1860-era house, offers three stalls and two paddocks for its guests’ horses. Windsong Arabians, an hour away in Mount Airy, MD, has a few stalls and paddocks. Note that both places are also about an hour from Antietam Battlefield (see below).
Guided Rides: If you are touring without your horse, you can join a guided ride with a commercial operator. Licensed guides are the only people legally allowed to conduct tours of the battlefield. Artillery Ridge offers history-oriented and scenic rides. Cornerstone Farm B&B’s guided rides are highly recommended. Ask when the reenactor who portrays Robert E. Lee is leading a tour. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the general and rides a gray horse similar to Lee’s beloved Traveller. Or contact Andie Custer-Donahue, who works with Cornerstone for a two-hour history ride. Some independent licensed guides also conduct tours on horseback. They can be contacted through the visitor center.
Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD
History: About an hour south of Gettysburg is Antietam National Battlefield, one of the best-preserved Civil War sites. Robert E. Lee’s first effort to invade the North came early in the war. In September, 1862, after several victories, his army crossed the Potomac. Lee planned to march into Pennsylvania and attack the capital, Harrisburg. Such a bold move, he thought, would convince the Union to negotiate. He was stopped in Maryland, however, and the two armies fought near the town of Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek. It was the bloodiest single day of fighting in the war with more than 23,000 casualties. The battle was a draw, and Lee crossed back into Virginia.
Parking: If you have a trailer, you must park at the Dunker Church near the visitor center.
Before you ride: Watch the introductory video at the visitor center and attend a ranger presentation. These dramatically explain what happens when 120,000 soldiers start shooting at each other in cornfields and pastures on a hot, muggy, late summer day.
Maps: Pick up maps of the battlefield and bridle trails at the visitor center.
Bridle Trails: There are two connecting trails on the battlefield. The only way to reach them is along the paved road that runs from the parking area through the battlefield. The road is one-way and used only for vehicles touring the park, so traffic moves very slowly. However, there can be tour buses, and on weekends, it can be very busy. The road is lined with interpretive signs, monuments, and historic markers.
The trails overlook Burnside Bridge, one of the most famous locations of the battle. Union soldiers tried for hours to cross the bridge, but were stopped by heavy fire from rebels on the opposite hill. The arrival of Union troops from another direction finally overcame the Confederates. Ironically, the water under the bridge was only a few feet deep; the soldiers could have waded across.
Overnight stabling: Camp with your horse at Happy Hills Campground in Hancock, Maryland, about an hour away. It has a barn with 20 indoor stalls and six partially covered outdoor stalls.
Guided rides: none
Manassas National Battlefield Park, Manassas, VA
History: Two battles were fought at this battlefield, located a few miles west of Washington, DC. These battles are also known as the first and second battles of Bull Run.
The First Battle of Manassas, fought in July 1861, was the first major battle of the war. At the time, the war seemed exciting and even fun. Tourists from Washington rode out in carriages with picnics to watch what they thought would be an afternoon of gentlemanly skirmishes. The soldiers expected the same thing. Instead, their innocence died in bitter, bloody fighting. As night fell, everyone realized that the war would be long and vicious.
Like the first battle, the Second Battle of Manassas, fought in 1862, was a Confederate victory. It inspired Lee’s first invasion of the North, which ended at the Battle of Antietam.
Parking: The parking lot is off Pageland Lane at the western edge of the battlefield.
Before you ride: Spend some time at the Henry Hill Visitor Center, and watch Manassas: End of Innocence, a 45-minute film that covers both battles. While you’re at the visitor center, pay the $3 per person park pass.
Maps: The park map does not show the bridle trails. However, the Battlefield Equestrian Society, a volunteer group that helps maintain the trails, has a trail map available on its website. (www.battlefieldequestriansociety.org) Overlay the park map onto the trail map to see where you are in terms of the battles.
Bridle trails: For trail riders, Manassas Battlefield is the motherlode. There are 21 miles of bridle trails which go across the fields and through the woods. You will also cross the Bull Run River.
Overnight stabling: The nearest stabling is at the JBIT Ranch in Berryville, VA. It is about an hour from Manassas and Antietam. It offers stalls, paddocks, and a round pen. It also has electrical and water hookups for living-quarters trailers and RVs.
Guided rides: Mulford Riding School, adjacent to the park, conducts trail rides. Some of the guides know the history, but the rides are generally scenic. If you are traveling without your horse, this is the only outfitter in the area.
Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, VA
History: The Petersburg Campaign was the longest military event of the Civil War. For 9 ½ months, the Union and Confederate armies conducted trench warfare around the city. Sometimes called “The Siege of Petersburg,” it cost the lives of nearly 70,000 soldiers. When Union forces finally broke through the lines of April 3, 1865, the Confederates had to abandon Richmond. Nine days later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Parking: note that this battlefield actually consists of three separate sites which are several miles apart: Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, The Eastern Front, and Five Forks Battlefield. Find parking closest to the site you’d like to visit using the trail maps found on-line.
Before you ride: Spend time at the separate visitor center at each location, where the siege and its impact are explained very well.
Maps: The bridle trail maps available at the visitor centers are particularly nice, showing not only the trails, but also points of interest and photo opportunities.
Bridle Trails: Two of the three sites have trails – The Eastern Front and Five Forks Battlefield. There are no restrictions for getting to the Five Forks area, but to reach the Eastern Front trails, you must enter Fort Lee Military Base through the Lee Ave. gate and get a pass.
Overnight Stabling: Idle Moment Farm is just three miles south of town. Garry and Bobbie Moretz have 11 indoor stalls and one paddock with a run-in shed. If you are camping, they have limited water and electrical hookups. About 30 minutes from the battlefield, Gail Foederer’s Southern Cross Farm in Keswick has several stalls, two pastures, a hot walker, and an outdoor arena.
Guided rides: none
Chickamauga National Military Park, Chickamauga, GA
History: The battle here was for control of Chattanooga and its vital railway. In the weeks before the battle, the Union army moved through Tennessee. The Confederates abandoned Chattanooga, and the Union occupied the city. But the Confederates were determined to take it back.
The two armies fought on the hills along Chickamauga Creek in northwest Georgia on Sept. 19 and 20, 1863. The first day’s fighting ended in a draw. On the second day, the Confederates forced Union troops to retreat to the relative safety of Chattanooga. The Union remained under siege until reinforcements arrived in November. Confederate defeats after that set the stage for Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Chickamauga was the first National Military Park. When it was dedicated in 1895, many Civil War veterans were still alive. They helped decide where to place markers inscribed with their recollections about the battle. The park is particularly sensitive to the importance of horses during the war. Many tablets at artillery placements include horses in the accounting of those wounded or killed.
Parking: The only parking is in the gravel lot at the west end of Dyer Road. From the Visitor Center, follow LaFayette Rd. and turn right on Dyer. The parting area is very clearly highlighted on the park map.
Before you ride: The visitor center, as always, is the place for information and orientation. The military campaign in this area also included the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge; it’s all explained at the center. If you are really interested in the history, schedule another day to tour those sites on foot.
Maps: Pick up a trail map at the visitor center or download it from the park website. The park map is color-coded and shows the length of each section of the trail. Horse and hiking trails are marked with red, blue, and white blazes.
Bridle Trails: The battlefield has 14 miles of bridle trails. It is primarily a scenic ride, but with 1,400 markers and monuments scattered around, you’ll get a good dose of history. Note that there is no water available on the trails, so plan accordingly.
Overnight stabling: Mahada Farm is located across the road from the trailhead. Dianne Adams-Koehler has a few stalls, but most guests use her paddock which she stocks with a large round bale of grass hay. Seahorse Farm in Chattanooga has covered stalls, plus an outdoor round pen and an indoor arena. Owner Jerry Clark has been welcoming traveling horses for more than 15 years.
About an hour from the park, Harvest Home B&B in Rising Fawn, GA has room for 4 horses and a two-person apartment above the barn. Owner Cheri Miller is pet-friendly and has a veterinarian and farrier on call.
Guided Rides: Richard Manion, a horseback-riding history professor, offers three-hour guided rides. He concentrates on human-interest stories and the importance of horses and cavalry. He will go with one person and groups up to 10.
Pea Ridge National Military Park, Garfield, Arkansas
History: This spot in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas was the site of one of the most important battles of the Civil War, and one that you have probably never heard of. Missouri was a border state and was in the Union, but many residents and the adjacent state of Arkansas wanted it to secede. IN March 1863 the matter was settled with a Union victory at Pea Ridge.
Pea Ridge is considered one of the most pristine battlefields, largely because it is so remote. It was also a relatively small battle, with 26,000 soldiers, rather fewer than the 100,000 who fought in many of the eastern theater battles. So while most of those battlefields are covered with monuments, Pea Ridge has almost none. Most of the 4,300 acres are as they were in 1862.
Parking: The trailhead for both loops is located just past the site of General Curtis’ headquarters. It is clearly marked and easy to find.
Before you ride: Stop by the visitor center to pay the $10 vehicle fee (good for a week). Take time to watch the 28-minute movie Thunder in the Ozarks, which explains what happened at Pea Ridge and why. Tour the updated museum; the museum bookstore has one of the best selections of Civil War titles in the entire national park system. Not that the visitor center has the only restrooms in the park.
Maps: The park map clearly shows both trails, including the section shared with bicycles. While the trails pass only a few historic sites, those are nicely highlighted so you can return on foot or by car to check them out.
Bridle Trails: There are 14 miles of trails in two loops. The shorter loop runs along some of the battle lines. The longer trail loops over the remote Elkhorn Mountain. On the trail, expect to see deer, wild turkeys, and raccoon. Ticks are a perennial problem, so a reliable spray and thorough check of horses (and riders) is a must.
Overnight stabling: For riders “just passin’ through,” Perry’s Passin’ Thru Bed, Barn, and Breakfast is as welcoming as it sounds. It’s about an hour from Pea Ridge in Springdale, AR. Becky Perry has four 10-by12 stalls and a turnout paddock. Both bedrooms of the B&B overlook a lake; the master bedroom has a hot tub where you can unkink your muscles after a long day of riding.
Ponderosa Trails Campground in Pineville Missouri is also about an hour from Pea Ridge. It has 100 covered open stalls, paddocks, and a round pen. For riders, it has hookups for campers and RV and cabins.
Guided rides: none