July 21, 1861, was the first time Union and Confederate troops met in a major land battle, and peculiar as it may sound, quite a lot of people were looking forward to it. The soldiers who had been training for war were ready to put their skills to use, confident their opponents would retreat at the first shot, and determined not to miss the only battle of what surely would be a short war. Citizens from Washington and surrounding areas were excited to see the battle up close—families with picnic baskets fought with reporters for prime seating offering good views of the action. But their romantic notions were all quickly swept aside, as nearly 1,000 men lost their lives and 5,000 were injured on the fields of Matthews Hill, Henry Hill, and Chinn Ridge. Ten hours of heavy fighting put an end to any notion that this war would be decided quickly and painlessly.
Union and Confederate generals both considered Manassas, Virginia, a key area because it offered access to the railroad and transportation, only 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The Battle of Bull Run, as it was also called, favored the north in the early going, but Confederate forces eventually received reinforcements, and their numbers allowed them to repel an advancing Union side. (Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname at Manassas when a confederate soldier urged his comrades to fight by pointing to Jackson as he held his brigade "like a stonewall" against the Yankees.)
At first the Union withdrawal was orderly, but Union soldiers soon found the road to Washington clogged with the carriages of congressmen and others who had come to watch the battle. Panic soon seized many of the young soldiers—most of whom had recently signed on as 90-day volunteers—and the retreat became a rout. Although the Confederates had been bolstered by the arrival of new troops and President Jefferson Davis, they were too disorganized and lacked the manpower to follow up their success.
In late August 1862, Union and Confederate armies met once again on the plains of Manassas. This time, the soldiers weren't nearly as naïve, but the outcome was much the same: Confederate forces routed the Union army, and brought the South to the height of its power.
If You Go
The Henry Hill Visitor Center provides a good starting point for park visitors to pick up maps and audiocassettes. Visit the museum, see the film "Manassas End of Innocence," or join a ranger on a tour focusing on the First Battle of Manassas, with interpretive markers and artillery positions. A one-mile, self-guided walking also tour covers the ground contested in the First Battle of Manassas, and five-mile self-guided tours cover the primary areas in First Manassas and Second Manassas. The park brochure also provides information on the 13-mile, self-guided driving tour of the Second Battle of Manassas, stopping at various locations, including Stone House Tavern, a structure used as a Union field hospital.
More then 130 years later, Disney made plans to erect an American history themepark on the land, along with commercial and residential development—events that would became known as the "Third Battle of Manassas." The proposal was fought off thanks to loud opposition from park supporters, but growth just beyond the boundaries of the park still threatens the scenic views of the battlefield.
Many consider Manassas a poster child for the need to emphasize sensible growth and landscape protection around historic sites. A proposed Battlefield Bypass would attempt to divert traffic now driving through the park, but would open up nearby countryside to suburban sprawl, thus inviting development on nearby land. There are no simple answers to preserving the land while allowing for growth in the nearby community, but NPCA and historic preservation groups are doing their best to promote practical solutions.