Manassas National Battlefield Park

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I do not have a great interest in the Civil War or military history.  But, I’m also no stranger to it.  Having a father who taught college history did not cause an aversion to things of old; I just wasn’t interested.

However, he was the site historian at Star Fort while it was under archeological excavation (in Ninety Six, SC – that would be 96 mistakenly estimated miles along the Cherokee Path, as such things originate).  Two Revolutionary War battles were fought there, and while the location of a siege trench or a jail might be (and was) interesting to academics, I liked it because 1) there were visible remains of a fort (not nearly as visible as in the photo above) and 2) musket balls, arrowheads, and old chips of china plates could be found readily.  Cool stuff for a kid.

Civil War battles seem not to have allowed time for such grand fortifications, locally, at least, such as at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park – a nice mountain for hiking (with a view), a solid museum with era relics and depictions of the convergence of forces, and otherwise spacious areas for the imagination.  And the imagination both wanders and wonders…

In Virginia for a week, I found time to visit Manassas National Battlefield Park. No elaborate forts.  No cool “toys” to find lying on the ground.  Instead, imagine being virtually alone in a large open field, with the sun yet to set in a couple hours, and a warm breeze flowing over the grasses and around you.

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Not much happening here.  Looking in another direction, a similar scene, only with the addition of a fence, built similar to those used years ago.

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It’s a very pleasant place to be.  According to Park documents, tree lines, open land, and the general terrain have changed very little over the last 150 years, back to July 21, 1961 when the first major land battle of, to Southroners, the War of Northern Aggression began.

But it’s peaceful.  At least, until you put a cannon on it.

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Or plural.

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The Park provides a short 1.2 mile trail around the fiercest areas of battle during the first Manassas battle (a second battle would be fought a year later).  A larger 5.4 mile trail (nicely constructed) covers a wider area, and is apparently used regularly by locals for jogging or walking.

To walk around the short trail is to follow the trimmed grass through a field near the Visitor Center.  Sign posts tell of the home of Judith Henry, who, at 85, refused to leave her house and died during the battle when her house came between warring sides.   Various markers have been provided along the trail – the first soldier to die from a particular State, the first officer (Col. Francis Bartow, Georgia Volunteers), the first General (Bernard Bee, Army of the Shenandoah), and others, with names and regiments.

There are other markers as well, telling of the respective size of the armies, troop movements during the course of the engagement, their leaders, and the push and shove of the battle lines.   In a world trending towards remote controlled warfare, the battle in Manassas is clearly depicted not of firing over hills in “civil” volleys, but of fluid battle lines, the reversals of fortunes by timely reinforcements, the quick forward placement and faster withdrawal of cannon, and impact of leaders who command retreating soldiers to stand or standing soldiers to charge.  Within the 1.2 mile loop,there seems to have been a push and shove over every gentle rise – the same ones peacefully enjoyed in a warm breeze in the early evening sun.

Having walked past a marker where a house once stood during the battle, I ventured a few hundred yards further along the mowed path.  The next marker turns the view back to the path just walked, with a historically certain depiction of Union and Confederate soldiers converging on just those steps.

battle line

Men died here, obviously.  Sure, there are ample references (or tributes) to Brig. General Johnston, Brig. General P.G.T. Beauregard, Brig. General McDowell, Maj. General Patterson, Capt. Ricketts, and Colonel Thomas J. Jackson (who was given his nickname “Stonewall” here).  And others of rank.  But 847 were killed, 2,706 wounded, and 1,325 captured or missing, mostly within view of this short walk.

But, having read the markers and observed the individual acres where men charged rifle lines, or, for that matter, cannon positions at less than 100 yards, it remains difficult to fully comprehend the courage, passion, obedience, fright, commitment, and insanity of charging an enemy line in close quarters.  The tactical appreciations for troop deployments, feints, cavalry charges, flanking maneuvers, et al, become lost.  It’s certainly not holy ground in a religious sense, but reflections on mortality and the human nature pervade.

Given the size of assembled armies, casualties, considering battles to come, might be regarded as fairly light.  But at this point in the war, the Union troops were, relatively speaking, on a quick jaunt to Richmond, VA to put a quick end to the Southern uprising. 

Interesting note: Union Armies frequently named battles after area rivers or creeks that played a role in the conflict, while Confederates tended to use the names of towns or farms.  Manassas National Battlefield, therefore, gives a nod to its Confederate name.  It’s also known as The Battle of Bull Run.

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1 comment :

  1. Another aspect of the battle that is hard to comprehend is that over the next hill, the enemy was easily hidden. Unlike today with predator drones and tanks to stand high in, the battles then were fought in prone, kneeling, and standing positions. Unless you were in a tree or on a horse, the next hill could easily hide a hundred of your opponents. Death was but yards away, not hundreds of yards away. If you get a chance to see Gettysburg or perhaps Custer's last stand, you will see the intimate settings by which all this blood was shed.

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