This story is featured in the August 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

By Christian Knight

One hundred fifty years ago this month, our young nation was beginning its darkest hour—a four-year Civil War that would claim nearly 700,000 lives. Today, a century and a half later, that agony lingers deep in our collective consciousness. The history hangs on the battlefields, bridges and broken forts where brother fought brother long ago. These are powerful places, many of them named for nearby rivers and creeks that were so central to life, and warfare. And one of the best and most peaceful ways to visit these battlefield sites is by paddling the bodies of water that have defined them through the years.

John Brown’s Raid
Oct. 16-18, 1859

THE BATTLE: The abolitionist John Brown was among the first to recognize that slavery in America would not end without bloodshed. As politicians on both sides dithered and compromised, Brown took action. In October 1859, he and 21 followers seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in hopes of fomenting a rebellion of slaves and sympathetic whites. Instead, a U.S. brevet colonel named Robert E. Lee defeated the raiding party after a short siege—all but five were killed or, like Brown, hanged for treason. Though it took place nearly 18 months before the Civil War began, Brown’s raid presaged the savage violence to come.

THE PADDLE: Harpers Ferry, pictured above, lies at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, both of which offer miles of mild whitewater. Small shale ledges distinguish the Potomac’s rapids from the rolling Class III waves on the Shenandoah. Depending on the water level, the popular Shenandoah Staircase accommodates beginners, intermediates and expert freestyle kayakers. The run begins at Millville, W.Va., five miles upstream of Harpers Ferry. The highlight is Bull Falls, a fun 4-footer that spills into a good playwave. The mild whitewater continues for another 2.5 miles on the Potomac below the confluence at Harpers Ferry with Class II Whitehorse rapid. Paddlers can step out at the confluence to tour the picturesque town, which changed hands eight times during the war. Tour the brick engine house where Brown made his last stand, or visit the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park to tour trenches and ruins that one Civil War soldier described as “carved out by nature for some great tragedy.”

Read on: Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter
April 1861

THE BATTLE: Six days after South Carolina declared its secession on Dec. 20, 1860, 127 Union troops rowed across Charleston Harbor, abandoning the indefensible Fort Moultrie in favor of Fort Sumter, where they settled in for a long siege. They waited there for more than four months, neither side wanting to fire the first volley. By April 11, 1861, the garrison’s supplies were nearly exhausted. As a small fleet of Union vessels gathered off Charleston Bar, bearing relief supplies and troops, Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard called one last time for the garrison’s surrender. Maj. Robert Anderson declined, and early the next morning, Confederate batteries began a 34-hour barrage. No one was killed. The Rebels even allowed the Union troops to salute the Stars and Stripes before evacuating the fort. It was a bloodless beginning to four years of turmoil.

THE PADDLE: Let’s get one thing straight: No matter what you are, Yankee or Rebel, latte-liberal or redneck, it’s Chaalstn, not Charleston. And Chaalstn was designed—not by man, but by Mother Nature—for paddling. As significant as Fort Sumter was to the Civil War, it’s not the only paddling destination in the Charleston area. Add to it Folly Island, Morris Island, below, a historic lighthouse and the Folly River, and you’re in for 15-30 miles of one of the Southeast’s best tours. Re-creating the Union’s moonlit escape from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter can be a particularly nostalgic paddle. If solemn is your mood, consider the route of a teenaged slave, who, on March 11, 1861, paddled a canoe from Charleston’s waterfront to Fort Sumter, seeking asylum. Maj. Anderson sent him back the next day. No one knows his ultimate fate.

Read on: Bull Run

In March 1862, photographer George Barnard made this photo of children and Union cavalrymen at Sudley Spring Ford on Little Bull Run. Manassas Federal Battlefield Park Ranger Jim Burgess stands at the same spot 148 years later.

Bull Run
July 21, 1861, and Aug. 28-30, 1862

THE BATTLES: If the First Battle of Bull Run proved anything—aside from the tenacity of the Confederacy—it was that a battlefield is no place for spectators. Convinced the rebellion would last no longer than three months, President Lincoln sent 29,000 inexperienced Union troops south to Richmond to crush the Rebel uprising. Thirty-three thousand equally green Confederates met the bluecoats—and droves of curious picnickers—outside of Manassas, a strategic rail junction just 25 miles from the U.S. capital. The Union earned an early advantage, but as the Confederate lines crumbled, Virginians under the command of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson stood “like a stone wall,” and the Rebels rallied around them, turning the Union advance into a chaotic retreat. Just over a year later, the armies met here again in the Second Battle of Bull Run, a much larger battle (and Confederate victory) that left more than 18,000 wounded or dead.

THE PADDLE: The Union retreat turned into a rout when Rebel artillery fire overturned a wagon at a bridge crossing nearby Cub Run. Today the battlefield is a sprawl of suburban townhomes and condos, but the historic crossing remains, now a nondescript bridge on Virginia Route 29—known locally as Lee Highway. Put in there for two miles of rollicking Class III on Cub Run, which flows during heavy rains. Near the confluence of Big Rocky Run, a decent surfing wave forms at levels above 3 feet.

If you prefer to paddle amongst forests and open fields—not to mention Civil War history—try Bull Run itself. The creek features two primary sections: the three-plus miles above Route 28 and the 8.5 miles of flatwater that runs through Bull Run Regional Park. The upper section begins at the Route 28 bridge, where a few days prior to First Bull Run, Confederates surprised Union forces with an overwhelming counterattack in the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford. This shallow section of Class I-II zips around corners. Downstream the run is deeper, slower and perhaps even more interesting. You’ll encounter an old abandoned lowhead dam and pass the Rod and Gun Club, where you may hear the blast of rifles—a faint echo of the battles fought here 150 years ago.

Read on: Chickamauga

Sept. 19-20, 1863

THE BATTLE: In the summer of 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland pushed deep into the Tennessee Valley, and in early September seized Chattanooga, a symbolic and strategic Confederate stronghold. The Confederate forces fled south into Georgia, regrouped, and met the Union army near a meandering creek, the West Fork of the Chickamauga. Two days of fighting left more than a quarter of both armies—about 30,000 men in all—either dead or maimed. Only Gettysburg produced more casualties. The Confederacy won the battle, but the bulk of the Union force escaped to fight another day.

THE PADDLE: The primary put-in for the Chickamauga Blue Trail is Lee and Gordon’s Mills, where the Rebels hoped to entrap the Union army. The run’s main takeout is 10 miles downstream in Tennessee. But the City of Chickamauga, pop. 2,500, has worked with other towns and counties to insert access points along the trail. Along the way, paddlers can view wildlife and enjoy the river. But it has another purpose: to transport tourists along one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefields.

Read on: Sabine Pass

Sabine Pass
Sept. 8, 1863

THE BATTLE: With the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, the Union gained control of the Mississippi River and effectively cut the South in two. The Sabine River, which forms the border between Texas and Louisiana, became the vital conduit for food, money and supplies to the western Confederate states. Late in the summer of 1863, a fleet of 17 Union gunboats and troop transports set out to seize Sabine Pass—the lone access point between the river and the Gulf of Mexico—and starve the western Rebels. Standing in their way was Fort Griffin, a modest fort manned by 47 gunners who had trained their cannons on marked spots in the narrow waterway. They quickly destroyed one Union gunboat and disabled another, blocking the channel and causing the Yankee fleet to turn tail downriver.

THE PADDLE: Near its mouth, where the battle took place, the river wanders through a massive reservoir (Sabine Lake), past a powerhouse, beside the town of Sabine Pass and along the Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge. Day-trip options abound, including secluded beaches and historic structures. Farther upstream, the Sabine ambles through largely vacant wilderness. From the Texas Highway 63 bridge (Louisiana 8) to Highway 12 is a 100-mile wilderness journey featuring enormous white-sand beaches, catfish, hardwood-lined banks and clear water. Another 40 miles takes you to Sabine Lake.