With Frankensuperstormageddon Sandy inbound, Natalie and I decided to take advantage of the fall colors before the hurricane-nor’easter mix stripped every tree on the Eastern Seaboard bare. In a fit of marital compromise, we decided to combine Natalie’s desire to see the colors with mine to get out to one of the area’s many Civil War battlefields.
We headed for Manassas, VA, site of two key battles during the war. The First Battle of Manassas was the first major confrontation of the Civil War following the Confederates’ firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, which ignited the war. A famous story told to high school history students is that northern capitalists and southern aristocrats picnicked while watching the battle unfold. No one—including the undertrained troops engaged in the skirmish—expected the war to last beyond this single exchange of bullets. It’s one of those cruel ironies of history that the war would continue for four more years, exacting nearly as many American deaths (well over 600,000) as all other wars combined.
I’ve always been drawn to the Civil War for a number of reasons. It featured some of history’s most amazing military minds, all struggling against one another while the country negotiated existential questions of its moral foundations; its economic, social, and historical directions; and the exploding time bomb of slavery. If you ask me, the US did not become a nation (or truly exist) in 1776, 1783 (Treaty of Paris) or 1787 (adoption of the Constitution); in my humble opinion, it did not truly become the United States of America until 1865*.
So, west of DC, along a little creek called Bull Run, the newly-minted Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia met. This first major engagement of the war saw the arrival of Thomas Jackson (and his famous nickname) to the stage. While Federal cannon blasted into Rebel lines, one General Bee exclaimed to his men, “See there, Jackson standing like a stone wall…Rally behind the Virginians,” and a legend was born.
The battlefield has done an admirable job of erecting cannon, fences, and roads in roughly the same order that they were in 1861. As a consequence, much of what we saw was fairly accurate to the time the armies saw it. In a display of rabid honor, there was a statue of Stonewall Jackson erected near the visitors center. The statue was more a stack of muscle arranged in the shapes of a man atop his horse and given the face of Jackson, but it was a worthy monument nonetheless.
Natalie got her fall colors as well…
This scratches Manassas off my list, a list that sadly only includes Gettysburg in addition. Antietam is not too far from Aunt Mia and Uncle Mike in Frederick, MD, so come spring, we’ll try and make a trip up there as well.
*Interesting fact: the last known veteran of the North passed away in 1956, but not before appearing on a television talk show in 1953.