Although not a big Civil War buff, I do seek out battlefields from that conflict whenever there’s one nearby. So it was fortunate that I was in Prince William County, Va., recently because the first major battle of the war occurred there. On July 21, 1861, enthusiastic volunteers in colorful uniforms representing both the Union and Confederacy took up positions on the rolling hills near the small town of Manassas.
Neither side was prepared for a lengthy battle because they were confident that the enemy would bolt and run when the first shots were fired. It didn’t turn out that way. The skirmish turned into a major confrontation in which the Yankees claimed an initial victory. But, inspired by the presence of Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the rebel forces pushed the Union troops back in what became known as the First Battle of Manassas (also known as the Battle of Bull Run).
The two armies met on those same hills a little more than a year later, in August of 1862. This time, it was a solid victory for the Confederate forces.
Both encounters are fully explained at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, located about five miles north of Manassas on Highway 234. It’s peaceful and quiet now, a direct contrast to the bloody fighting that took place more than 140 years ago when more than 5,000 men lost their lives in less than two days in the first confrontation. The second battle involved 120,000 men who fought for almost three days. Nearly 24,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. Today, a life sized statue of Gen. Jackson astride his horse gazes sternly across those hillsides as they rise and fall toward an old house that was destroyed during the fighting, then restored. About a mile away, another old building stands serenely behind a split rail fence, still carrying some of the scars incurred when it served as tavern before the war and a makeshift hospital during the war.
A few cannons from that era have been placed on a grassy area near the park’s visitor center. They no longer spew death and destruction; now they serve as constant reminders that the United States weren’t always united.
Log on to www.nps.gov/mana/ for more information.