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Manassas Beyond the Battlefield

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TrailsIt's been nearly 150 years since thousands of inexperienced young men lined up to shoot each other on the hills and ridges above Bull Run. On that occasion — July 21, 1861 — the men from the South whipped the men from the North in a battle that will be remembered as the first big one of the Civil War.

A year later, on those same hills, many of the same young men were back. This time most of them were all too experienced, and they had gotten much better at their craft. It was a much bigger and costlier battle — the one fought Aug. 28–30, 1862 — but the result was the same. Another decisive Confederate victory. The two battles of Manassas made this piece of ground about 30 miles west of Washington DC one of the most historically significant in the country and a destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Perversely, those Civil War soldiers may have had an easier time getting to Manassas than visitors do today. Those guys had to put up with snipers, cavalry raids, logs across the road and assorted other dangers on their way to the battlefield. Modern visitors have to contend with something potentially more daunting: traffic.

The pristine 5,000-acre Manassas National Battlefield preserves the most significant areas of the fighting. But the park, which originally was way out in the country, is now very much an oasis in the midst of relentless residential and commerical development. Even though the area's congestion may make exploring beyond the national park seem difficult, there's more to the Manassas story and discovering related sites is worth the effort. Visiting Manassas requires what those Civil War generals sometimes didn’t have: a strategy.

Here’s a suggestion: Organize your visit to Manassas in three parts: The national park visitor center, related sites in the area, and the national battlefield itself.

Start with an orientation at the Manassas National Battlefield visitor center, which is open daily 8:30 am–5 pm. Take in the exhibits, pay your fee ($3/person for a three-day pass), see the movie (another three bucks), get walking and driving tour information, buy a book, ask questions. Then leave. Spend the middle of the day (non-rush hours) exploring other Civil War sites in the area:

  • Take a quick trip west on I-66. Pick it up less than a mile south of the national battlefield. Take the Route 17-North exit to Delaplane, site of Piedmont Station. Then come back to the battlefield on Route 55 through Marshall, The Plains, Thoroughfare Gap and Haymarket. Route 55 parallels I-66 and is a historic route (used by Jackson, Lee and Longstreet in 1862). This trip takes you through so far virtually unspoiled landscapes.
  • Visit the dozen or so Manassas-area sites associated with the main battlefield. Most of these sites have been marked with Civil War Trails signs, so you can find a nearby place to park and read an interpretive sign at the scene of the action.
  • Try the new downtown Manassas Civil War walking tour.

Then return to the park, which is open “during daylight hours,” meaning long summer evenings. Arrive late in the afternoon or early the next morning. What you will get is fewer people, great light and cooler temperatures. Seeing all of it will take the better part of a long day, but you will come away with a good understanding of the way it was in 1861–1862 — and the way it is today.

Manassas Sites — Beyond the Battlefield

First Manassas

Piedmont Station (Delaplane) – Soldiers from Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston's Army of the Shenandoah boarded train cars here July 19 for a trip to Manassas Junction, which was under threat of Union attack. Among the officers using this Manassas Gap Railroad station was Col. Thomas J. Jackson, who would win fame as "Stonewall" at the battle two days later. The historic shuttle from here to the battlefield, about 30 miles east, is thought to be the first using a railroad to move troops to imminent battle. The hills where the soldiers camped, the railroad and the station buildings look today much as they did during the war. Civil War Trails sign at the station.

Blackburn's Ford – This was the first taste of battle for the vast majority of soldiers involved on both sides. On July 18, a Union "reconnaissance-in-force" from Centreville approached this ford, one of the few on Bull Run. Confederates were waiting and repulsed the attack. This action proved prescient: it was not going to be easy to dislodge the Southerners. Two Civil War Trails signs are at the ford just off Route 28.

Signal Hill – A small marker here locates the site of a Confederate signal station. From here the morning of July 21, signal officer E.P. Alexander saw the sun glinting off a Union cannon approaching Sudley Ford. Then he saw masses of soldiers also nearing the far left of the Confederate line. Alexander then signaled by flag relay to Nathan "Shanks" Evans, commanding near the Run Bridge. The message, "Look out for your left; you are turned," is believed to be the first use of the "wig-wag" signal under combat conditions.

Mayfield Fort – When Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard arrived in June 1861, he ordered the construction of a line of fortifications guarding the railroad junction. Mayfield was one of those forts constructed by the Confederates prior to the first battle. The fort has been restored, and an interpreted trail leads to its various features. Mayfield Fort is part of the Manassas Museum System and more information is available at the main museum downtown.

Ben Lomond – This home, built in the 1830s, suffered because of its proximity (about a mile south) to the Manassas battlefields. It was used as a hospital after the first battle and was occupied by various groups of soldiers — Union and Confederate — at different times during the war. The house is known for its soldier graffiti. It's open during special programs including July 22–23 this year. Civil War Trails sign.

Second Manassas

Marshall (historic Salem) – This town in the heart of Mosby Country saw lots of Confederate infantry action in late August 1862. Stonewall Jackson camped here Aug 25 on the way to the rear of Pope's army during the Second Manassas Campaign. His troops turned east here on what is now Route 55. One day later, Robert E. Lee followed with James Longstreet. On Aug 27, riding east from Salem ahead of his troops, Lee was surprised by Federal cavalry and narrowly escaped. Civil War Trails sign in Marshall.

The Plains – Long lines of Confederates marched through here on their way to battle in August 1862. Civil War Trails sign in town tells of spies for both sides during the campaign. The town is also a station on the Manassas Gap Railroad that saw soldiers pass through on their way to the first battle (see Piedmont Station).

Thoroughfare Gap – The Confederate columns, led by Jackson's force, headed to this Bull Run Mountain pass after leaving The Plains. Jackson's troops sprinted through Aug. 26 without a problem, putting distance between him and Longstreet, who lagged behind. By Aug. 28, there were lots of Federals in the area, some of whom headed to the gap to oppose Longstreet, who had to fight his way through on that day. Trails sign at the gap with a view of the ruins of Chapman's Mill, a landmark on the battlefield.

Haymarket – Located just a couple of miles west of the battlefields and at a popular crossroads, citizens in this small town got used to seeing marching soldiers, including those commanded by Jackson and Longstreet during their marches to the 1862 battle. Civil War Trails signs on Route 55 just east of Route 15.

Catlett's Station – Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart, riding ahead of the infantry advance from the Rappahannock Aug. 22 battled a small force here at the Orange & Alexandria Railroad — Union Gen. John Pope's supply line. Stuart failed to destroy a railroad bridge here but captured valuable intelligence and the Union commander's hat and uniform cloak. Civil War Trails sign near the railroad.

Battle of Bull Run Bridge – Two Trails signs, one at Liberia and the other at the Conner House, describe the action Aug. 27 as unsuspecting Union troops sent from the Washington area ran into Stonewall Jackson a few miles east of the Manassas junction. The encounter turned into a decisive Confederate victory, again foreshadowing a more significant one within days. Note: Liberia is undergoing restoration. It was Beauregard's headquarters prior to First Manassas. It's open during special events. You can see it through the trees from Mathis Avenue north of Liberia Avenue.

Conner House – Action swirled around this historic site Aug. 27 (see above). The house also was the site of Joseph Johnston's headquarters following First Manassas and a Union command post prior to the second battle. Trails signs here.

Both Battles

Manassas Museum and downtown walking tour – This community museum in downtown Manassas features both permanent and changing exhibits on the battles and a town battered by the Civil War. The new downtown Civil War walking tour begins here.