Thursday, July 21, 2011

Manassas Battlefield and the 150th Commemoration

Today I attended the 150th Commemoration of the First Battle of Manassas at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.  The traffic was relatively light on the way out I-66 W, and I arrived at the battlefield with plenty of time to spare before the commemorative ceremony.   The National Park Service did an excellent job of arranging for air conditioned shuttle buses to take spectators from the parking lot to the day's events.  The only really annoying part of the whole day was the stifling heat and humidity, with temperatures reaching around 100 degrees at the start of the afternoon.

Walking across the very ground where so many men fell 150 years ago to the day was a sobering and reflective experience.  Even with all the tourists around me, I found myself lost in time as I explored Henry Hill and looked out over Matthews Hill.  I actually felt a deep sense of sadness as I walked over the hard-fought ground around Captain Charles Griffin's Union battery.  I have been to Manassas before; visiting on such an anniversary brings new meaning to the experience.

Morning on Henry Hill, looking towards the famous Rambo-like statue of  "Stonewall" Jackson.

Reenactors hanging out in front of the Henry House.  The Henry Hill Monument, erected in 1865 by Union veterans, sits in the background.
Looking past the Stone House to Matthews Hill, site of the first phase of the battle.

Looking towards the two-gun contingent of Griffin's Battery from the vantage point of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, part of what would become known as the "Stonewall" Brigade.
A  commemorative ceremony kicked off four days of events at the park.  Unfortunately, the numbers in the audience weren't as high as they could have been -- all told, possibly around 1,000.  Perhaps the heat had something to do with it, rather than some dwindling interest in the war or the Sesquicentennial.  Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell delivered a speech commemorating the sacrifices of Union and Confederate troops and recalling the evils of slavery. McDonnell was not going to make the same mistake he made over Confederate History Month last year.  The highlight of the ceremony was the animated keynote address by Dr. Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, who placed the battle in context with just the right amount of detail.  I particularly liked his discussion of how Northern Virginia fit into the secession debate in the winter and spring of 1861 -- a subject near and dear to me on this blog.

Governor McDonnell of Virginia addresses the crowd.

Dr. Ayers speaks about the history surrounding the Battle of First Manassas.

The event was quite the social occasion as well.  I was able to catch up with some friends, such as writer and local historian William Connery, a.k.a. "the History Guy."  I also had the opportunity to meet in person some of my fellow bloggers, including Robert Moore, Mannie Gentile, John Hoptak, and Scott Patchan.  I really had an enlightening time chatting with such knowledgeable individuals about the Civil War. (And in the case of Robert, about World War I, too!)

The National Park Service has sponsored several activities and events over the next four days.  Here, tourists visit the Civil War 150 HistoryMobile.  Although aiming to make the wartime experience in Virginia more accessible, the mobile museum was at times just a little overdone.

A living history camp area has been established on the grounds of Henry Hill.  Visitors can see what camp life was like, minus the outhouses!

Living history reenactors portraying U.S. Marines drill in front of the Henry House.  The Marine Corps also has a display on the grounds of the house detailing its interesting and little-known involvement in the Battle of First Manassas.  The National Park Service recently erected a marker on Henry Hill about the "Marines of '61."

After about five hours, I called it a day, and am still wondering where I got the burst of energy to do this post.  On Saturday I will be attending the reenactment and possibly a few other events.  I look forward to sharing additional thoughts.  Until then, keep cool.

**For more information on the 150th Commemoration, visit the website of the Manassas National Battlefield Park.


Walk Forrest Walk said...

Ron, Thanks so much for taking the time to post. Our local paper had about 3 lines of print and a small picture published in today's edition. Your account of the 150th Commemoration means a lot to me. Have a great week-end and try to stay cool...........Jim

David Heiby said...

Thank you so much. Your article was better then the Post's article. I've been following your blog for some time and really like the content. We were at the events on the 21st and also called it a day after 5 hours.

Jeffry Burden said...

Great post. I was there...and shade was indeed at a premium. (In fact, that's me standing in the shade in the far left of the Henry House photo.) Thought the Park Service did a fine job.

Greg Taylor said...

I visited the Manassas Battlefield for the first time on Tuesday. It was not too hot on that day and I managed to spend 7 hours following the sequence of both battles. Took 3 of the guided walking tours and they were very well done. There was maybe 30 people on the Henry's Hill tour and the guide commented that it was "nice to have a large crowd" for the tour. The Matthews Hill tour had about 7-8 people and the Brawner Farm tour only 3. On the driving tour I was the only visitor at most stops. In summary, I was surprized at how few people were visiting the Park. I came all the way from Los Angeles and expected large crowds even several days before the anniversary events.
Maybe the heat had something to do with it, but my suspicion is that in this modern era with so many other distractions most people don't care much about history.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Jim--Thanks, and glad you enjoyed the post. It's nice to bring it home to folks who weren't able to be out here.

Ron Baumgarten said...

David--Thanks! Nice to hear you found my coverage interesting, and glad that you enjoy the blog. Five hours was truly the limit. Today I read that the National Park Service has cancelled outdoor events between 2pm and 6pm. Mother Nature has a hold on us this time. Hopefully it will be marginally better for the reenactment tomorrow.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Jeffry--Thanks. Your comment is much appreciated. Funny that you found yourself in the picture! Incidentally, I have a friend, originally from Iowa, who was there yesterday and who was asking if I knew about more Iowa ACW resources. I will be sure to point her to your website!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Greg--Glad you made it out here, and it sounds like you luckily avoided the worst of the heat by doing your tour a little earlier.

It may be a bit harder to engage people today, especially younger generations, who have been raised in an instant gratification society. However, I am encouraged when I see at least one young kid with his father or mother out there walking around, like I did yesterday. And the new high-tech tools for touring will hopefully reel some people in. Of course, I will tell myself that the heat was the culprit yesterday!

Andy Hall said...

Ron, do you know if that Marine detachment had any connection to the Marine Barracks in DC? Apparently they did a program commemorating the Marines' involvement at Harper's Ferry, and I'm wondering if they will be doing similar things throughout the sesquicentennial. (Which would be objectively pretty damn cool.)

Ron Baumgarten said...

Andy--Wish I had written down all the details concerning the Marine activities. I am not sure if there is a connection to the Barracks. There were former Marines and Marines working the display. The Marine Corps Museum also had some volunteers there. A Marine Corps gunnery sergeant narrated the drill (pictured above) and told the story of the Marines at First Bull Run to the crowd. The Marine display was also very well done, both from a graphic and narrative standpoint. I wouldn't be surprised if the Marines do other such activities throughout the 150th. Like you said, pretty damn cool.

John Cummings said...

Ron, I am very sorry we didn't have a chance to meet up. It was tough going for a while out there. I had to sit down for about an hour inside the Visitor Center. I had never felt that overcome by heat before! Thank God for AC.

John Cummings

Ron Baumgarten said...


Sorry as well that we missed each other. That heat was certainly awful! Hopefully we will connect at some 150th event in the near future.



Sgt G said...

Just to help....the Marines at the event ON the battlefield are members of the United States Marine Corps Historical Company, a not for profit organization that does educational programming for the Marine Corps and the Park service, among other agencies. You can check out their website at

Glad you enjoyed the Marine program!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for the information! The program was great, and I am sure many others shared my enthusiasm.

(For readers, make sure to type .org instead of .com to get to the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company.)