Gettysburg Guides Launch Culpeper Battlefield Tours

Culpeper historian Clark B. Hall, right, trains battlefield guides and hosts friends atop Clark's Mountain, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's 1864 signal station, in Orange County, Va. From left are Stephen Dunn, Rodney Lackey, Susan Ralston, Susan Strumello, and Jasan Hileman, Chris Army, Joe LaFleur, Paul Errett and Clark B. Hall. Culpeper launched its own guide service, teaming up with some of Gettysburg’s best battlefield interpreters. The two storied places, their histories intertwined, have joined forces in a project promising to benefit travelers from far and wide. (Emily Jennings/The Star-Exponent via AP)
Culpeper historian Clark B. Hall, right, trains battlefield guides and hosts friends atop Clark's Mountain, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's 1864 signal station, in Orange County, Va. From left are Stephen Dunn, Rodney Lackey, Susan Ralston, Susan Strumello, and Jasan Hileman, Chris Army, Joe LaFleur, Paul Errett and Clark B. Hall. Culpeper launched its own guide service, teaming up with some of Gettysburg’s best battlefield interpreters. The two storied places, their histories intertwined, have joined forces in a project promising to benefit travelers from far and wide. (Emily Jennings/The Star-Exponent via AP)
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CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — Gettysburg, America’s best-known Civil War battlefield, draws scads of visitors every year, many of them escorted by its renowned Licensed Battlefield Guides.

Less so, Culpeper County, Virginia, whose Brandy Station battlefield is where the Gettysburg campaign began.

But in April, Culpeper launched its own guide service, teaming up with some of Gettysburg’s best battlefield interpreters. The two storied places, their histories intertwined, have joined forces in a project promising to benefit travelers from far and wide.

“This venture is very important because it opens easy access for the public to the hidden historic treasures of Culpeper County that, heretofore, required significant personal investment to attempt to find, let alone interpret,” Gettysburg guide Jasan Hileman said of the new undertaking.

On April 18, Hileman led Culpeper Battlefield Tours’ first trip, leading three lifelong Gettysburg fans to pivotal parts of Culpeper’s sprawling Brandy Station battlefield.

Hileman is among five of Gettysburg’s Licensed Battlefield Guides who have teamed with Culpeper residents to create a service leading people on customized tours of the county’s many Civil War sites. The other historians are Chris Army, Britt Isenberg, Tracy Baer and Fran Feyock.

Culpeper Battlefield Tours LLC’s partners include the American Battlefield Trust, Friends of Culpeper Battlefields, Virginia Horse Industry Board and the Town of Culpeper Economic Development and Tourism Office. The Friends of Cedar Mountain and the Brandy Station Foundation are part of Friends of Culpeper Battlefields.

AN ENDORSEMENT

Gettysburg Foundation President Wayne Motts, former director of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is enthusiastic about the effort. In March, Motts visited Culpeper to tour some of its Civil War historic sites and meet with preservationists and the guides’ leaders.

He knows how rigorous the screening and training is for Gettysburg’s Licensed Battlefield Guides, considered the legendary battlefield’s best interpreters.

“In history circles, Gettysburg guides are legendary for their deep and detailed knowledge of the battle — and, equally, for the sheer fact that they passed the brutal test to earn a guiding badge,” Civil War Monitor magazine reports.

Army, himself a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide, and Culpeper resident Susan Ralston founded the Culpeper service to offer premier guided tours of the county. Having begun tours of the Brandy Station battlefield, it will later add tours of Culpeper’s other historic sites.

During the American Civil War, Culpeper witnessed four intense years of fighting, with battles contested at Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, Kelly’s Ford, Raccoon Ford, Rappahannock Station and Morton’s Ford.

Major military movements opened and closed in the county, including the Second Manassas, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run and Overland campaigns. Some of those campaigns’ hallowed ground is now preserved, thanks to years of preservation work by many, Ralston and Army said.

The Battle of Brandy Station was the war’s largest cavalry battle and proved the mettle of Union horse troopers against Confederate commander J.E.B. Stuart’s cavaliers. Starting Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, the battle was momentous to the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The guides’ Brandy Station tours will include visits to Buford’s Knoll, Fleetwood Hill, St. James Church, the hamlet of Stevensburg and sites of the Union army’s 1863-64 Winter Encampment.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Ralston came up with the idea during a 2019 visit to Gettysburg, where she met Chris Army.

“After seeing the Gettysburg battlefield teeming with visitors and the town filled with tourists, I was inspired to develop what would become Culpeper Battlefield Tours LLC,” she said. “I asked Chris to tell me about the Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide program and how such a program could be created in Culpeper.”

Army and Isenberg developed the Culpeper guide training program with the help of local historian Clark B. Hall, and funding from the Culpeper town Economic Development and Tourism Office.

“As a history lover, I was very interested in working with “Bud” Hall and taking advantage of his vast knowledge and decades of work researching and documenting the Battle of Brandy Station,” Army said.

Army recruited and trained several Licensed Battlefield Guides from Gettysburg, already proven in their knowledge of the Civil War and experienced at giving tours.

He is also recruiting new guides, seeking people who are passionate about the preservation and promotion of Culpeper’s history. To learn more about becoming a certified guide, contact him or Ralston via CulpeperBattlefieldTours.com.

Culpeper Battlefield Tours LLC offers guided walking, hiking, bus, car and horseback tours, booked directly via its website. Custom tours can be created upon request to incorporate other historic sites in Culpeper County. Interested in booking a tour on a specific date? Call 540-632-4500 or email info@culpeperbattlefieldtours.com.

Down the road a bit, the new guide service could get a boost if the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin succeed in creating a Culpeper battlefields state park. Youngkin has endorsed the effort, which would create the park from more than 1,700 acres of preserved lands on the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain battlefields.

Signs for the new guide service are posted at Brandy Station’s three 3 parking areas — the parking circle on Beverly Ford Road, on Fleetwood Hill and the St. James Church site. The venture mounted a soft launch on social media this spring.

A RUGGED BUNCH

Its first tour ran into less than ideal weather, but the chilly rain didn’t deter Jasan Hileman and his clients — Terry Krueger, an English professor from Bend, Oregon; his brother, Rick, and friend John Lever, both biochemists from near Spartanburg, South Carolina. All were experienced battlefield trampers, who dressed appropriately.

Hileman’s trio had hired him for a two-day tour at Gettysburg, but when he told them about Brandy Station, they jumped at the chance to visit Culpeper to bookend the beginning of Lee’s Gettysburg campaign.

They met the morning of April 18 at the Southern States store and gas station on U.S. 29 between Brandy Station and the Elkwood industrial park, joined by Ralston. Hileman and Ralston wore black ball caps bearing the Culpeper Battlefield Tours logo. The guides also have fleece vests and golf shirts with the emblem, as well as window decals for their vehicles.

After Hileman oriented everyone and explained why Culpeper was such a crossroads of the Civil War, his clients set off in a car for Beverly Ford Road. After passing Culpeper Regional Airport, the road turns to gravel and ends at the Rappahannock River ford where the Battle of Brandy Station began.

At Beverly’s Ford, the guide riveted everyone with his description of how the battle opened with a surprise Union advance across the river in the predawn darkness of June 9, 1863. In the gloom, Confederate pickets’ horses sensed the presence of Union cavalry across the river, their nervous ears and movements alerting their riders.

Hileman noted that Henry C. Cutler of Avon, New York — a 26-year-old lieutenant in the 8th New York Cavalry who was the battle’s first casualty — was killed “right there,” he said, pointing toward the ford. Everyone fell quiet, contemplating Cutler’s death.

For posterity, Ralston snapped a portrait as the group stood overlooking the river.

Then it was back up the ford road to the Brandy Station battlefield’s parking circle near the north end of the airport. They drove on to Buford’s Knoll, named for Union Maj. Gen. John Buford, the quick-thinking hero of the first day’s fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Atop the knoll, which has two cannon pits, they looked down toward a long stone wall, from behind which Confederate Brig. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s defenders picked off some of Buford’s men.

Afterward, the group moved on to the site of St. James Church, where a war correspondent’s sketch of a gutsy Union cavalry charge made it into the pages of Harper’s Weekly, and to the southern end of Fleetwood Hill, where a well-marked interpretive trail describes the fighting’s climax.

In all, it was a quick two-hour introduction to the battle. Hileman said the next step up would have been a three-hour version, taking in Hansborough’s Ridge and Mountain Run at the county’s Lenn Park, both near Stevensburg.

His clients said their tour was outstanding. None had been to Culpeper before.

Lever said he has been interested in Gettysburg and the Civil War since elementary school, more than 50 years ago, when he wrote a report on Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jew in the Confederate Cabinet.

“Battlefields are nothing without interpretation. That can come from two main sources: interpretive signage and guided tours,” Lever said. “... The tour we had with Jasan was great — he told the story in an exciting and insightful manner.”

LONG-HELD WISH

Terry and Rick Krueger, now in their 70s, had last visited Gettysburg almost 65 years ago. Their April visit was a bucket-list item.

Because Gettysburg’s second-day fighting in The Wheatfield, Valley of Death and The Peach Orchard can be confusing, Terry contacted the Licensed Battlefield Guides and asked them to recommend a particularly qualified historian. They put him in contact with Jasan.

“He was a delight — energetic, informed and lucid,” Terry Krueger said of Hileman after their adventures in Gettysburg and Culpeper.

“It’s hard to imagine worse weather for a guided tour than we had at Brandy Station, but Jasan’s ability to maintain the narrative of the day’s fighting with its importance in the Gettysburg campaign enriched the overall experience,” Krueger said. “He also interwove anecdotes about individual participants in the battle to keep it human.”

A GOOD REVIEW

Rick Krueger said the Culpeper visit was “a great experience.”

“I learned a lot, got a little bit of exercise (once the state park is set up, Jasan said there will be plenty of places to walk), and it let us break up our drive from Gettysburg to Spartanburg into two convenient pieces,” he emailed Saturday from home.

Rick said his favorite spots were at the tour’s beginning and end, where Hileman described the Union cavalry’s river crossing and last-minute fighting near Fleetwood Hill’s Beauregard (or Barbour) house, where the main body of Confederate cavalry closed the battle.

“The Beauregard house was cool because Lee was there at the time of the battle, and the Union cavalry did not know about it,” he said.

Hileman, a past president of the Cumberland Valley Civil War Round Table, is on the management team for First Energy’s Potomac Edison Corp. in Williamsport, Maryland. He is also a volunteer firefighter specializing in advanced rescue.

“For a first tour, I think it flowed well,” Hileman of his first official Culpeper excursion. “The story stitched together nicely with a mix of individual-level stories. For me, the big stories are: What effects did the battle have? How did it impact both sides?”

He said he appreciates the challenges of guiding visitors in Culpeper as well as the opportunities available to interpret Civil War sites from Cedar Mountain to Aldie to Upperville to Pipe Creek and beyond to Gettysburg, following Lee’s invasion of the North.

“The Brandy Station battle is an open door to a month-and-a-half campaign that is arguably the most pivotal in the entire war,” he added. “Come on and step through; It’ll lead you to Gettysburg and beyond!”