Thursday, December 19, 2013

Manassas: Civil War Firsts

Several months ago, we were visiting friends in Carolina Beach, NC and stopped at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site. We visited the site on previous occasions but something clicked with my 6-year old son on this particular occasion. It was there on that visit that my son became interested in all things related to the Civil War.

Living in an RV the last few months has afforded us the opportunity to visit many other Civil War sites to feed his curious mind and fill in facts about a critical period in our nations history. During a recent stay outside of Washington DC, we camped very near the Manassas National Battlefield Park - the site of the very first battle between the union and confederate armies on July 16, 1861. The two armies met here again the following year. In both instances, the union army had to withdraw across Bull Run Creek to escape destruction. The south referred to these battles as First and Second Manassas in reference to the Manassas train junction, while those in the north called them the First Battle of Bull Run and the Second Battle of Bull Run named after the creek the Union troops had to retreat across.
Reconstructed bridge crossing Bull Run Creek
It was at the First Battle of Manassas that Thomas Johnson Jackson got his famous nickname. When it looked as if the union was routing the confederate army, General Jackson brought up his brigade to reinforce the weakening lines of Barnard Bee and two other generals. The story goes that in order to encourage and rally his men, General Bee points to General Jackson and shouts "There stands Jackson like a stonewall! Rally behind the Virginians!" General Barnard Elliot Bee, Jr. is mortally wounded in this battle and becomes one of the first general officers to die in the war while Stonewall Jackson soldiers on to become Robert E. Lee's strong right arm.
Is it just me or does this look like Superman's Dad on a horse?
The visitor center at Manassas National Battlefield Park is situated atop Matthew's Hill a key position during both battles of Bull Run. This location has commanding views of the surrounding area which has been kept much as it was during the battle (with the exception of considerable highway noise). I highly recommend watching the 20 minute video in the visitor center. We attempted to tag along for a tour of the grounds with a ranger but my 5 and 7 year olds did not have the patience for it. The video, which gives a great overview of both battles, was just the right length and held their interest and mine. The entire park is huge, near 5,000 acres with many trails and several interpretive signs. (Note: This property sits at a very busy crossroads and the deer population is huge here. Be cautious when driving this area at night!)
Atop Matthew's Hill 
From Matthew's Hill looking north toward the Stone House and crossroads
Statue of Stonewall Jackson on Matthew's Hill
Jonah pretending to load a cannon on Matthew's Hill
The Stone House where wounded soldiers were cared for
At the First Battle of Manassas, politicos on both sides of the conflict believed that one battle between ground troops would decide the war. Both sides vainly thought their side would sweep the other and the defeated army would immediately concede. At first the Union army appeared to be winning the day but once southern reinforcements arrived the union army was routed. The retreat was orderly until troops, who were mostly inexperienced, 90-day volunteers, found the road back to Washington clogged with retreating spectators and their carriages. This battle showed the nation that this war was not going to be short nor easy for either side. The quote on the plaque below indicates the lesson learned by many during this first battle - that this war would not be easy nor romantic, but terrible and deadly. I had a dim notion about the "romance" of a soldier's life. I have bravely got over it since. 
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