In the past few months, I’ve managed to visit something like five National Park sites. They’ve all been tied to a historic person or event and I’ve tried to participate in a ranger-led walk or tour at each one. Sometimes, that’s the only option if you want to really see the site, especially if it’s a historic home or structure. At other sites, there are oodles of options, from hikes, to driving tours or interactive displays. For me, when I visit a historic site, taking the tour has always proved worth it. Yes, I could read the wikipedia page or the official website, but it’s so much easier to have a ranger tell me about it, live and in person with gesticulating included directing me to actually look at what they’re talking about. And that’s why I showed up at Manassas National Battlefield Park just in time for a guided tour of Henry Hill.
Two significant American Civil War battles happened at Manassas. The first, on July 21, 1861, was the first major battle of the American Civil War. It’s also the topic of the Henry Hill tour I participated in over the weekend.
The tour helped to put things into perspective. It explained not just what the battle looked like, but also the context that caused it.
Basically, nobody was prepared for the Civil War, and neither side really thought it would even come to war. The Soldiers, on both sides, had pretty much no idea what the fuck they were doing. Some hadn’t even fired a weapon, or, if they had, it’d been a while and they’d forgotten the process. Most competent military men were in the west, fighting Indians. President Lincoln did call up 70,000 men, with 90-day contracts, but they had no idea what they were doing and received little training. The men in charge, the generals, they didn’t know what they were doing either, and most had never seen combat.
Manassas Junction, in 1861, was a tiny town where two rail lines met, only 20 miles from Washington, D.C. Rail lines were important, of course. Both sides wanted to control them and wanted to use them to move troops and supplies. President Lincoln, getting pretty fed up with this whole thing, ordered Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell to take 35,000 men and attack the Confederates. It was the largest field army ever gathered on the North American continent, albeit a very, very green military.
It took these Union troops three days to walk 20 miles. They got distracted by blackberry bushes and they looted and pillaged the homes of Confederate sympathizers. They stopped to ask for water and snacks at the farms they passed and some of them just died, because it was July and heat exhaustion is a serious ass-kicker.
Finally, war happened. There was flanking and assaulting and maneuvering and also a lot of mayhem. I learned the details of the battle during the tour, but what stood out to me most was the absolute buffoonery that took place on that battlefield.
There were something like 200 different uniforms worn at the Battle of First Manassas. There were blue and gray uniforms on both sides. Soldiers from different states came dressed in the style of their state militia and a lot of the time, nobody knew who was who. Sometimes commanders yelled across the battlefield trying to asses if the men they were facing were friend or foe. When in doubt, units fired at one another, hoping for the best.
Then there was a Louisiana unit, mostly Irish, who loved to fight and had been anxious for action. When racing toward an enemy artillery battery, they threw down their muskets and launched at the opposing force with bowie knives. Knives, generally, don’t win in fights against cannons.
Another unit, assaulting across the battlefield, came across a blackberry thicket and became immediately distracted by the plethora of snack they had found. They were having a great time, eating blackberries, until their commander came up and forced them back into the fight. So onward they went, until they came upon a persimmon patch, said, “fuck this war thing,” and started their second snack session of the battle. Their commander, livid at this point, started screaming at them again, and in the madness that ensued a hornet’s nest was disturbed and the hornet’s took off after the commander’s horse.
Like I said – buffoonery.
In addition to all that silliness and, you know, the absolute horrors of war, First Manassas is also where Brig. Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his nickname and became the legendary Stonewall Jackson. As the legend goes, Confederate lines were being crushed by Union troops. Jackson’s men provided reinforcements and Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee shouted to his men, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall!”
Today, there is some debate over what Bee meant exactly. Some say it was to inspire his men to rally on Jackson’s Virginia Soldiers. Others say Bee was being an dick and meant it in a not-at-all flattering sort of way. There’s no way to be sure, really, and Bee died almost immediately after he spoke the phrase. Either way, the nickname stuck, and a legend was born.
At the end of the battle, the Confederates were declared the victors. Something like 4,000 men fell on the battlefield at Manassas, and 1,000 died. The battle proved the need for experienced and better-trained Soldiers, especially those who wouldn’t get distracted so easily by blackberry bushes. It also showed both Union and Confederate forces that the war would not be brief and that the fight would be far from blood-less.
Thirteen months later, the Battle of Second Manassas would claim more than 4,000 lives and injure 24,000 men.
The Manassas National Battlefield Park is quite beautiful. Today, it’s all rolling hills and picture-perfect farmland. It’s hard to imagine the chaos of the wars that consumed the countryside there, but the National Park Service does a great job of trying to put it into perspective.
TIPS FOR VISITING
- Take a guided tour. There are several every day that cover both First and Second Manassas and meet from various spots throughout the park. Check in at the Henry Hill Visitor Center to make sure the tours are running as scheduled.
- Take the guided driving tour. Grab a guide at the Visitor Center and visit a few of the significant sites of the Battle of Second Manasass. There’s 12 stops total, covering something like 20 miles. You can visit all the sites, or just swing by a few of them to get a sense of the place.
- Hike. There’s more than 40 miles at Manassas National Battlefield Park, of varying lengths. There’s one right out the back of the Henry Hill Visitor Center that’s just a mile and gives you a solid rundown of the Battle of First Manassas.
Manassas National Battlefield Park is free to visit. The park is open from dawn to dusk each day, while the Henry Hill Visitor Center, the Stone House and the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center all maintain separate hours. All are generally open daily, excluding Christmas and Thanksgiving.