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First Manassas: Walk through the Civil War’s first army battle

By Johnny Molloy • Aug 19, 2018 at 5:30 AM

Want to combine a learning experience with a walk? Head to First Manassas National Battlefield near Washington D.C., a good complement to visiting our national’s capital. You can make a 4.7-mile circuit through the eastern half of Manassas Battlefield, where the first clash of the Civil War took place in July of 1861. A blazed trail takes you from the park visitor center through the woods and fields of the preserved historical locale. Visit the Stone Bridge, homesites and the only two buildings that were there when both First Manassas and Second Manassas battles took place. Even if you don’t feel like hiking here, take the time to visit this historic national treasure. At times, it seemed as if our Civil War was inevitable. At other times, it looked as if the North and South could compromise their way into a conflict-free future. However, the issues of slavery, states’ rights and the industrial versus rural lifeways of the regions simply could not be overcome. Although the Civil War officially began in April of 1861 at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the armies of the Confederate States of America and the United States of America first clashed here at Manassas in July of 1861. Our nation’s leaders feared this day. Southerners longed to throw the cloak of Yankee piety and self-righteousness from an agrarian economy built around slavery. Northerners tired of prideful states’ rights advocates wishing to keep the national government as weak as possible. Andrew Jackson, during his presidency in the year 1830, stated his famous toast, “Our Federal Union, it must be preserved.” It was not to be. Nobody knew exactly where or when the first battle would take place. Both the Yankees and the Confederates were sure of their causes and equally sure of a quick victory. The residents of Washington, D.C. treated this Battle of First Manassas almost like a picnic. Along with Congressmen, many locals took carriages and horses out to the battle site. Manassas was important because it was the junction of two railroads -- The Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Manassas Gap Railroad. Both sides knew that whoever controlled these railroads could easily make their way to and from the Confederate capital in Richmond. Recruits on both sides were full of pomp and bluster, ready to defend their noble causes. Higher-ups, from officers to politicians, as well as the average citizen, believed the War Between the States would be short and quick. Both sides had plenty of veteran officers yet the carnage that was to take place during the Civil War would shock all. And the first blow came here at Manassas. Just five days earlier 35,000 freshly mustered Union soldiers, signed up as 90-day volunteers, headed south to go capture Richmond. Of course, the Confederates had other plans. They realized the rail junction at Manassas would be a Yankee target and the two sides undertook their battle near a stream named Bull Run before dawn on July 21. A feint by the Union army at the Stone Bridge over Bull Run only temporarily threw off the Rebels. Their defensive line was collapsing and they made a stand at Henry Hill. This is where Thomas J. Jackson, Confederate General, held the line against the Federals, causing a fellow soldier to remark, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” A Southern hero was born – Stonewall Jackson. After a lull in the battle, both sides resumed their attempt to take Henry Hill. Finally, with fresh Confederate recruits the Southerners overwhelmed the Union. The Yankees began to withdraw toward Washington. To their surprise, the road to the capitol was clogged with the battle onlookers who left Manassas after witnessing the carnage and seeing that war was no picnic. The raw Union recruits fell into a panicked retreat. The Battle of First Manassas was over. The Confederates, with President Jefferson Davis on hand, celebrated. However, both sides surmised the Civil War was likely to be a long and deadly one. It would be 13 months later before the Union and Confederate armies would meet again at Manassas. This hike follows the First Manassas Trail, which focuses on the Battle of First Manassas. The trail is blue blazed as it follows grassy tracks through fields and dirt pathways through the woods. You will start near the battlefield visitor center and head east. The trail takes you by the Van Pelt homesite and on to the Stone Bridge, where the Yankees tried to trick the Rebels into bringing all their men. A walk along Bull Run adds a natural touch to the trek. Next, work your way to Matthews Hill, where outstanding views to the south reveal the battlefield. Work your way to Buck Hill, where more battlefield vistas await. Stop by the Stone House, where a tavern keeper and his wife rode out the conflict. Ultimately, wounded soldiers coalesced in the structure. The Stone House also saw the hordes of retreating Yankee soldiers pass by in humiliating defeat. Finally, you climb to Henry Hill and visit the Henry House, another building intact from that time. View the grave of Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the only civilian killed in the Battle of First Manassas. The frail 85-year-old lady refused to leave her home – and perhaps was unable to – and was struck by artillery. Beyond the Henry House, it is but a short jaunt back to the battlefield visitor center. To get there from exit 47 on I-66, west of Washington, D.C., take Sudley Road, VA 234 north for .7 mile, then turn right and dead end at the visitor center. The First Manassas Trail starts at the east end of the visitor center parking lot. For more information, check out Manassas National Battlefield, 12521 Lee Highway, Manassas, VA 20109, (703)-361-1339 www.nps.gov/mana, or check out my book Hiking Through History: Virginia

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