On a Friday morning, the air around Manassas is soft and quiet. Dew drops shimmer on the green rolling hills outside of town, and all is peaceful. But it was not always so.
In July of 1861, young and inexperienced troops from the Union and Confederate armies met for the first time on the fields outside of Manassas, and engaged in a fierce battle that would shatter their illusions about the glory of war. In this, one of the early battles of the Civil War, and the first one so close to Washington and Richmond (the confederate capitol), army recruits from both sides found themselves in the middle of a baptism by fire.
Today I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park, which preserves the ground where the first and second battles of Bull Run were fought. Also known as the Battles of Bull Run, both of these encounters were victories for the South, as they beat back Union forces and sent them retreating toward Washington. For modern travelers, a visit to the park gives a remarkable perspective of what the fight meant for our country’s young men, most of whom were taking their first steps into warfare.
The ground of the battlefield is scenic and peaceful, but throughout the park, a number of monuments, markers and other objects tell the story of the fighting that took place there. Visitors can see a number of cannons from the battle that have been set up on top of the hill overlooking the park. There is a large monument set up to honor the Union troops who died here, as well as a statue honoring Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, who earned his nickname during the first battle here.
For me, the most moving part of the visit was the film shown at the visitor’s center, which brings the conflict into human terms by telling the stories of individual soldiers, officers and civilians from both sides. Many of the young men in both armies expected the fighting to be quick, painless and relatively easy. Most thought that the conflict would end after just one battle. After a few hours of fighting, all of the surviving soldiers walked away with their lives forever changed.
Artillery cannon in the distance at Manassas Battlefield.
A monument to Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.
A monument erected by Union veterans to honor their dead at Manassas Battlefield.