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Manassas National Battlefield Park - Battlefield And So Much More

Henry house

The rebuilt Henry House and family cemetery. Bluebells cover the fields near Bull Run. Photographs by Danny Bernstein

There's much more than the battle when visiting a national park battlefield. You don't have to be a war connoisseur or a history buff to enjoy it. And you certainly didn't have to play soldier or have a major in history. You just have to get a couple of facts down and see how they work for the park you're visiting.

I always start with two numbers:

* When did the battle occur? July 21, 1861 for First Manassas, and August 29-30, 1862 for Second Manassas

* When did the site become a National Park Service unit? 1940

The North refers to the battles as the Battles of Bull Run, named after the stream that ran through the battlefield. The South named them Manassas after the important railroad junction. But the National Park Service literature refers to the battles as Manassas.

First Manassas is the battle that most talk about. Maybe it's because it was the first real battle between the North and South. Maybe it's because both sides were still innocent and thought that one battle would settle the conflict.

The two sides fought for the first time on the hilly property of Judith Henry. First Manassas was about protecting Manassas Junction. Railroads were a very important part of the strategy. Some Southern troops came partly by rail and were therefore much fresher than if they marched to the battle. The junction was at the intersection of present-day US 29 and VA 234 in northern Virginia.

The Union army had recruited volunteers for 90 days. President Lincoln felt that he needed to get the volunteers in battle before they all went home. The North's goal was to take Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. Spectators came to watch. They thought that it was going to be the only battle and the conflict would be settled quickly, so they didn't want to miss the fun. The South won this one and Union soldiers marched back to Washington defeated.

The second time that both sides met again on the same ground (Second Manassas) was not as romantic as the First Manassas. The South won again and it allowed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to think about invading the North. The Confederates' definition of success was taking Washington.

Inside the Manassas National Battlefield Park's visitor center a 45-minute movie spends most of the time on the troop strategy of First Manassas. It also makes a great deal of fuss over Judith Henry, a sick, elderly widow who was the only civilian casualty of the battle. Artillery fire during the battle struck her house. After the Civil War, Judith Henry's children came back to rebuild the family home and enlarged it to two stories.

The illuminated map in the museum shows how the two armies maneuvered around each other. A one-mile walking loop through fields shows where various officers fell during First Manassas.

In the First Manassas, regiments wore all manner of dress and didn't have a set uniform. The Zouaves were an exception, a regiment of New York firefighters who wore baggy red pants and a red cap with a gold tassel. This uniform was inspired by French fighting in North Africa. By Second Manassas, most soldiers wore the blue (North) and the gray (South) except for the colorful Zouaves.

But enough of battles. The park offers 5,000 acres of grasslands, meadow, and woodlands and superb walking.

Only 32 miles from Washington D.C. and surrounded by chain motels and strip malls, Manassas offers an urban oasis and a refuge for birds. The grasslands provide a home to eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, prairie warblers and many other birds. The park gives out a birding list to any and all who ask. The Audubon Society has recognized Manassas as an "Important Bird Area."  

The park also maintains more than 40 miles of hiking and horse trails on undulating hills. I walked the First Manassas Trail (5.4 miles), which leads to Stone Bridge over Bull Run.

Today the fields close to the stream have been overtaken by bluebells. Walkers, photographers, and flower lovers had parked close to the Stone Bridge parking area to admire the wildflowers. There were also Dutchmen's britches and daffodils indicating a home site. The trail was muddy but the Park Service has built long boardwalks in places.

The National Park Service in cooperation with commercial sponsors has discovered that small parks can be the source of great walking. They call it the Healthy Parks-Healthy Living program. The result is that the trails are well-maintained and sign-posted. A map describes two trails corresponding to the two battles. And as long as the sponsors display their logos on brochures and not on the trails themselves, I hope they will keep sponsoring these trails.

The uniforms on the VIP (Volunteers in the Park) were different from any I had seen - blue workshirt and black pants. The VIP I talked to said that the previous uniform looked too much like a ranger's uniform. Visitors got confused and expected VIPs to do law enforcement.

Also, since Manassas is so close to Washington D.C., legislators came to the visitor center and saw several people in uniform at the desk. They might think that they were all rangers and thought there were too many people on the NPS payroll.

Rangers give regular interpretive talks about First Manassas. And there will be a commemoration program July 21-24. But don't expect any battle reenactments in Manassas or any other national park battlefield. Reenactments will be held in the community but not in the park.

Manassas Battlefield held the first and only reenactment for the Centennial commemoration of the Civil War in July 1961. The event was described as a logistical nightmare. There were not enough reenactors to accurately portray both armies. In addition, there were so many people, participants, and observers that the park was not able to provide adequate facilities. Several visitors and reenactors were injured.

Some saw the reenactment as an entertaining event, rather than as a portrayal of a deadly serious battle in which thousands of men were killed or wounded. After that, the Park Service decided to use living history rather than battle reenactments for interpretive programs. Based on these concerns, then-Director Conrad Wirth established a National Park Service policy not to authorize any future reenactments on parklands.

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And the 1861 battle was called "Bull's Run" by the men of the 2nd Wisconsin.

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