From Soldiers to Thru Hikers: Examining Civil War History Along the AT
Written by Leanna Joyner, an AT thru hiker in 2003, she published Hiking Through History: Civil War Sites on the Appalachian Trail in 2015. She opens her book with a reflection on the parallels between thru hikers and Civil War soldiers. She laments that the perhaps the former might, “not be thinking about what happened here in the middle of the nineteenth century or the tangible remains of history beneath his feet, captured in the soil or the roots of these towering trees.” I feel she is successful in engaging and encouraging readers to make this connection, not just with their minds but with their bodies.
Joyner uses storytelling and trails to gain entry into the past. Though the historical facet of this walking tour, Joyner weaves her narratives with quality research and frank analysis to clarify the differences between widely believed folklore and facts. The quotes she selects and the characters she highlights, makes the action of history vibrant and immediate instead of dry and antiquated.
While giving the backstory of Angel’s Rest Hike in Pearisburg, Virginia, she cites a diary entry if a Union Sergeant which states:
“They spotted a Confederate officer with a large spyglass “examining the village from a very high mountain whose summit, two miles distant, overlooks the whole town.”
The whole book is like this, allowing us to walk with soldiers and engage with mysteries. The storytelling aspect of this book makes you itch for your boots and the included maps seem to ask, “Why not now?”
The historical narratives are juxtaposed with trail maps and breakdowns that are concise and easy to understand. The maps are uniform and colored, with the Appalachian Trail marked in red and your route (which may deviate from the AT) highlighted in yellow. Listed under the maps are all the things you want in a trail breakdown: distance, level of difficulty, trailhead directions, description, and even a brief “other activities” section which spotlights areas of interest like local museums and side trails. At the end of the book there is a helpful and concise chronology of the events documented in this guide which ranges from the 1850s to 1968 and a organized, quick to read directory of hikes mentioned in table format for easy decision making when looking to take a hike through history.
Joyner’s book first takes us through part of the Underground Railroad, where we explore the northern states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and even West Virginia.
Notably, the ironmaster’s mansion at Pine Grove Furnace in Pennsylvania, has a hidden room accessible through a small door in the floor of a closet, from which a short ladder descends. In this 8 x 6 room, slaves were thought to be hidden before moving on to the next leg of their journey. A cave in Massachusetts beneath Gulf Road is also thought to have been used as a stop along the Underground Railroad. That’s just a few of the locales Joyner introduces us to before launching into part two of three of this book, The Civil War.
There were numerous routes along the AT where raids ensued, battles fought, and forts constructed.
Here’s a name you might remember from history class: Stonewall Jackson. Browns Gap, Rockfish Gap, and Swift Run Gap were all part of Jackson’s campaign through Shenandoah Valley during the war. A 53-mile section of trail between Chester Gap and Front Royal was “a hotbed of activity between 1861 and 1865” for Union and Confederate armies.
John Mosby is another illustrious character from this region. Depending on how you look at it, he was the first to roam the Appalachian mountains and earn himself a trail name: “The Gray Ghost”. Mosby is known for his cunning and charm which allowed him to negotiate his own release from Union hands and then forward useful information on Union strategy to General Lee. He became so mythologized and highly regarded that not only was he the only guerilla effort Lee sanctioned, but recruits to his regiment had to have paperwork proving they were not deserters from other posts.
Joyner leads us through the power struggle and changing of hands that occurred famously at Harper’s Ferry and then to another critical moment in the struggle for civil rights: the Niagara Movement’s (a precursor to the NAACP) relocation to Harper’s Ferry. The man behind the move was scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois…Another name you might remember from history class. Just four miles from the trail, we are also led to his birthplace in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The book closes quietly with the post-war period and the freed slave’s community at Brown Mountain Creek, near the popular trail town of Buena Vista, Virginia. Joyner writes,
“The stories of the past are obscured with the thick canopy of reforested woodlands and the slowly diminishing evidence of their homes and barns However, a careful look reveals rock walls and foundations.”
The history of the Appalachian region during the Civil War may be expansive and intimidating but with Joyner’s abridged history and thoughtfully curated routes, this time in our American history is understandable and enthralling. Through her streamlined yet colorful approach, this historical hiking guide is fun, interesting, and a great way to get involved with the land in a holistic way.
Hiking Through History: Civil War Sites on the Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2015, 176 pages
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Hello again (I commented on your Jan 25th blog, having ‘missed’ all your previous post) I love that you brought some reading material into a post. I will definitely be getting this book to read before my own hike this summer. Thank you.