By Colin Woodward
Manassas was the scene of two major battles during the Civil War. The first was fought on 1861 July 21. The second was bigger, bloodier, and longer, lasting from 1862 August 28-30. Both were Confederate victories. Robert E. Lee (whose battle report of Second Manassas you can read here) was not at the first battle of Bull Run, but he was in command at the second, and it was one of his greatest victories. Despite the importance of these battles, and my long-standing interest in the Civil War, I had not had a chance to visit either battlefield until last week.
The battlefields are an example in contrast. The First Bull Run battlefield is maybe how you would expect it to look. It has a “Ken Burns-like” feel. By that, I mean it is photogenic, with cannon sprinkled about and tall grass blowing in the wind. Bull Run is the kind of battlefield that you could take someone who has little or no interest in the Civil War.
An imposing statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback looms over the First Bull Run battlefield, and the visitors center is not far from the Stonewall statue. I assume that the first battle of Bull Run gets many more visitors than the second, though the two are separated only by a narrow road. From certain vantage points, you can see pretty much the entire first Bull Run battlefield.
The battlefield at Second Manassas, in contrast, is more sprawling. It doesn’t have the First Bull Run’s vistas. It is more for the hardcore Civil War student. I am not the kind of person to dress up and camp at a national park battlefield, but I am more willing than most people to see as much of the battlefield as possible, even if that means dealing with the elements.
The Second Manassas battlefield is more heavily wooded and overgrown than I had expected. At times, I was walking through forest in the area where Jackson made his stand behind the railroad embankment. It was easy to get confused. At one point, I took a hiking trail rather than the parallel battlefield trail (I prefer to think that I was flanking the other trail, Stonewall style). The result was that I found myself on a rugged trail in the middle of an overgrown field. Luckily, I saw a marker in the distance, which brought me to the more user-friendly portion of the battlefield. I walked through some high grass to get next to the monument, which was dedicated to northern soldiers who attacked the rail embankment.
I’ve always known that Stonewall’s men defended the embankment, which provided not protection and elevation. I had never thought just how high the embankment was. To give you an idea, there is a set of stairs that lead to the top. It’s no wonder the northern attack failed. Not only did the Confederates have the advantage of shooting from the embankment, the Yankees had to go uphill to overtake it.
At the embankment is a panel showing the famous incident whereby some Rebels, who had run out of ammunition, threw rocks down at the Yankees. For some reason, I had always thought the Confederates were throwing small rocks, like the kind you would toss across a pond. The artist who did the panel, Don Troiani, depicted the Rebels as tossing down large stones. His painting gives you a good idea of how desperate the fighting was there. Anybody can shoot somebody. But it seems a true measure of ferocity when you’re trying to kill an opponent with a rock.
Walking the battlefields was not easy. The day was hot. True, I was probably more comfortable than Civil War soldiers were–being as I was in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. But most of the men fighting were in their mid-20s. I just turned 41. So, when it came to marching around, the men in blue and gray had younger knees by which to do it. Of course, I wasn’t trying to move around while people were shooting at me. Let’s call it a draw, shall we?
Despite having walked miles of the Second Bull Run battlefield, there was much I did not see. Hopefully, I’ll be back again before too long.