(Photo credit: Manassas battlefield with Stonewall Jackson statue, courtesy Cedwell Brice, Flickr Creative Commons)
If you live in or around Washington, DC, or are just visiting, and you’re looking for a real civil war battlefield that’s easy to get to, Manassas is the way to go. It’s got not one but two battle sites. First Manassas, known to the North as the First Battle of Bull Run, was the Civil War’s first large-scale clash between the two armies. Second Manassas (Second Battle of Bull Run) took place a little more than a year later. Both battlefield sites overlap with each other, though the second battle took place over a wider area than the first. Both battles were bloody affairs. Both were Confederate victories. Both are remembered for putting a real dent in Union morale, at a site within an easy ride of the nation’s capital.
By the way, the reason posterity has given each of these battles two names is because of the different naming conventions each army had for the battles it fought. Union armies tended to name battles after rivers, creeks, or streams in the vicinity. Bull Run was (and is) a nearby stream. Southern armies more often named the same battles after a nearby town or railroad junction. At the time Manassas was a railroad station—a strategically important railroad station—so the battle became known by that name. Since the South won both battles that took place here, I’m going to favor the Southern appellation. Besides, the National Park Service unit that cares for and commemorates this site is known as Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Manassas was designated as a National Park Service unit on May 10, 1940 (incidentally the same day that Nazi Germany invaded France and the Low countries, prompting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to resign). It wasn’t one of the initial military parks involved in President Roosevelt’s reorganization of 1933 (when many battlefields were transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service), perhaps because of its association with two stunning Confederate victories (Zenzen, 1998, p. 18). But its transfer to park service control did follow on a few years later, which was for the best. Generally, the federal government has been a bit better at placing major Civil War sites under federal control—even the ones the “good guys” didn’t win. The situation isn’t all that rosy, though. According to one historian, only 58 of 384 sites associated with the Civil War are currently under NPS control or jurisdiction (Zenzen, 1998). I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I’m pretty sure the equivalent figures for the Revolutionary War are worse, especially for sites of battles that the Continental Army lost, such as Brandywine and Camden (something I wrote about earlier).
Anyway, in the spring of 2010, while on vacation, my better half and I visited Manassas. Driving out from Washington, DC, past the White House, along Constitution Ave. and past the Lincoln Memorial, we were out of the city in no time, heading straight down Route 66 to the park site in Prince William County, VA. As you might expect, though, the route to Manassas today is dominated by strip malls and heavy suburban development. (In fact, the constant struggle to preserve the site from encroachment by developers is a whole other story by itself; I’ll come back to that below.) But you are able to put all that behind you as you close in on the park itself.
At a little over 5,000 acres, Manassas is smaller than Gettysburg (11,000 acres) but a little larger than nearby Antietam. (Somehow, though, Antietam feels more wide-open and endless.) Entering the park is like stepping back in time, to a place where modern buildings, power lines, cell phone towers and the like are nowhere in view. Roads and vehicles are of course much in evidence, though their impact is lessened somewhat by narrow lanes and the rolling topography. Like most of these eastern battlefield sites, the scenery is disconcertingly gorgeous, belying the scenes of martial destruction and suffering that took place during and after the battles commemorated here.
The Manassas visitor center is known as the Henry Hill Visitor Center. It’s a modern building but it’s named after the nearby Henry Hill monument to the battle, a 27-foot high stone shaft erected by the Union army in June 1865. Perhaps because of the building’s connection with a period monument, some attempt has been made to include classical touches to the visitor center’s architecture—awkwardly, in my opinion. The entrance is enclosed by a low pedimented structure supported by four white doric columns. I’m not sure if this works, since the one-story structure itself is quite low and lacks the necessary height and scale of, say, a Second Bank of the United States to give it some gravitas. Instead, it looks a bit like the entrance to one of these McMansions that started sprouting up all over the exurbs in the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, the effect is even worse because the whole building sprawls in a very modern manner (like a large suburban bank or dental center). Attempts to “class up” modern buildings with Greco-Roman touches usually just look “tacked-on” and downright tacky, and this case is no exception. Most NPS visitor centers are built along fairly utilitarian lines, and I like them better that way.
Anyway, the interior of the building is fine. It has a snug museum, though as we were on a tight schedule we didn’t get much of a chance to look at it. There’s an electronic battle map to display field movements and tactics during the battles. I do love these big electronic dioramas, as they appeal to my love of maps and visual representations of things. The first time I saw one was at Gettysburg, during my first visit to that park in the early 1990s. That one took up an entire room. This one is more modestly scaled, but still cool.
Where the visitor center really scored, however, was with the interpretive film. In fact, Manassas gets a prize for one of the best national park orientation films I’ve seen. Called “Manassas: End of Innocence,” it was produced in 2002, and as a rule newer orientation films are incomparably better than older ones from the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s also narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, so right away the viewer thinks that some money and effort have been put into the production. That certainly seemed to be the case. The battle scenes had a big-budget feel to them (that had as much to do with the cinematography as anything else), while the narrative managed to interweave the stories of both battles while not confusing the audience over which was which. What’s more, it established a handful of key characters that you could identify with, and the narrative was dramatic enough that it actually got my heart racing at times! Kudos to whatever park official commissioned that film.
Having got ourselves properly oriented, we were ready to venture out and try to make sense of the battlefield itself. First Manassas in July 1861 was much more contained geographically, so it’s more amenable to walking; it’s also the battle that gave Confederate Gen. Thomas Jackson the nickname “Stonewall.” The park includes a monument to Jackson, on his horse, inscribed with the words supposedly used to describe him in the heat of battle: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.” Second Manassas, in August of 1862, was a much bigger affair, covering more territory and lasting three days. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tackled the Union Army of Virginia, under Maj. Gen. John Pope. The Confederate victory that time prompted Lee to invade the North, i.e., Maryland; this led to the bloody Battle of Antietam about a month later.
The battlefield tour was a little disappointing. It was led by a nervous young volunteer who was new at his job. He said he’d only been at it two weeks, and it was clear he still wasn’t too sure of himself. He wasn’t terrible, but he was still working through the process of learning his trade and lacked the experience and confidence needed to connect a group to a historical event and thus bring the battle “alive.” He missed some good opportunities to connect the battlefield to larger issues. Someone in the audience prompted him to say something about the story from First Manassas about the Northern residents from the capital who had ventured out to watch the battle. If there’s one thing people seem to remember about this battle (apart from the Union losing it), it’s that scores of well-to-do Washingtonians who were looking for a good day’s entertainment on the day of battle headed out with their horses, carriages and picnic baskets to bluffs overlooking Bull Run. They thought they would have a prime vantage point to view an easy victory for their side; instead, they were confronted with a Union rout and their army turning tail and running back straight toward them in complete panic and disorder. The gentlemen and ladies had to pick up and scramble back to the city, in the process getting caught up in the Union stampede and stuck in a massive traffic jam (Burgess, 2011). It’s a colorful story, recounted in many travel guides and in tourist literature. Unfortunately, the kid fumbled with that one too. Still, I’m glad we joined him. He was trying hard, and even a subpar tour is better than no tour at all, because you get vital human interaction with another person who knows more about what you’re looking at than you do. I hope that lad stuck with it and went on to become a seasoned guide. Who knows, he could even be working as a park ranger by now.
After that, we ended our visit to Manassas by doing the auto tour of the larger Second Manassas battlefield—in classic park service fashion—before heading off for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. Happy days!
By the way, if you’re a bit older you might recall the mid-1990s controversy surrounding Disney’s efforts to locate a historic theme park near Manassas. These efforts were eventually beaten back, but the Disney example is only one of a whole series of efforts to commercially develop the site and surrounding area, which, being so close to a booming Washington, DC, has become immensely valuable real estate. If you’re looking for a good book that recounts the efforts to keep the developers at bay, look no further than Joan M. Zenzen’s Battling for Manassas: The fifty-year preservation struggle for Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Joan Burgess (2011). Spectators witness history at Manassas. Hallowed Ground Magazine, spring. Available at http://www.civilwar.org/hallowed-ground-magazine/spring-2011/spectators-witness-history-at.html
Joan M. Zenzen (1998). Battling for Manassas: The fifty-year preservation struggle for Manassas National Battlefield Park. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.