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The year is 1861. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, thirteen southern states seceded to form their own nation. On July 21, both sides met in the first battle of the war – dubbed the Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, depending upon which side you were on.
The field where the two sides clashed was chaotic and bloody. Cannons were fired, booming and smoking; the hills hid charging troops and wounded casualties. In all, about 17,000 Union troops and nearly as many Confederates perished.
It is hard to imagine the scene, now, in such a bucolic setting, as I survey the soft grass that rolls into verdant hills and extends into forests.The battlefield is now a national park just a few miles from the present-day city of Manassas. But back then, there was only a railroad junction – the meeting of North and South.
After exploring the timelines, photos, historical items, and interactive displays in the museum, I check in with the visitor’s desk – and I’m glad I do. They tell me about the free tour beginning outside in just a few minutes.
“Both sides knew they had to come through here,” says Bryant Kincaid, a volunteer park ranger who leads our free tour. President Abraham Lincoln had given Irvin McDowell orders to bring the Union army to Manassas and end the war in one battle, Kincaid explains. The North meant to end this uprising in a single decisive victory.
“That’s the mindset,” Kincaid says. “One battle would determine this entire disagreement.”
Instead, the Union suffered a devastating loss, and the war dragged on for four more years. A second decisive battle in 1862 had offered the Confederates yet another victory. Manassas National Battlefield Park commemorates these twin battles.
“We are going to go back in history,” Kincaid says as he begins our overview of the first battlefield. “It’s very important that we understand. It was not that long ago.”
Kincaid emphasized that the war was about slavery. “The underlying root cause was slaves,” he said firmly. “There are other reasons: states’ rights, tariffs, economic stuff. But the underlying root cause was slavery.”
“The founding fathers knew it was a problem, and couldn’t resolve it then,” he continued. “We would resolve it through bloodshed.”
He leads our group toward one of several heavy black cannons stationed in the grass. When he asks for volunteers, I raise my hand. My fellow volunteers and I gather around a heavy black cannon, one of several scattered across the battlefield, and we mimic how the ear-splitting cannons were loaded and fired and how they were moved laboriously over the uneven ground.
Kincaid leads us past a farmhouse where a stubborn widow lay abed as the battle boomed around her; eventually, the cannon that shot through her house claimed her life.
He then walks the group through the positions the various companies took as they skirmished through the fields. The scene back then was chaotic. For example, Kincaid explains, most people think of the two sides as wearing blue or gray uniforms. In fact, there were 200 different kinds of uniforms on the field that day. Stonewall Jackson was still wearing his old U.S. Army blues, and his 200 men – the 5th Virginia – were dressed in George Washington’s continental uniform and carried old-fashioned flintlock muskets. The 2nd Wisconsin wore gray uniforms, while the 79th New York – the Highlanders – donned black and green tartan colors. The 14th Brooklyn wore bright red, and the 1st Minnesota dressed in lumberjack-style checkerboard. On and on – the divisions were as diverse as their country.
Kincaid ends our tour on a solemn note.
“Perhaps these boys are still with us,” he says, his voice growing quiet, “Perhaps they are coming out of the ground and they are touching us. We must not forget them.”
He is standing by a statue of Stonewall Jackson on his horse, but his message is for anyone seeking to learn the lessons of history. “Understand your history,” he says simply.
Manassas National Battlefield Park strives to do just that, with an unflinching glimpse of Civil War history and countless lessons on how this often-divided country has struggled to reconcile its differences. The displays and tours the park offers don’t just help visitors remember the past – they help bring it to life.