Friday, August 17, 2012

A Visit to the Battlefield of Second Manassas

As we approach the 150th anniversary of Second Manassas, I wanted to share a few impressions of a trip that I took a few months ago.  Each year of the Sesquicentennial, I have a goal of visiting a few sites associated with the events that took place in the corresponding year during the Civil War.  This past April I decided to tour the battlefield of Second Manassas, a short 30 minute drive from home.  I picked up my friend, Rufino, at a nearby Metro station and headed out I-66 to Manassas National Battlefield Park.  A little music from the 2nd S.C. String Band set the mood as we drove west.

Based on some initial research I had done on visiting the battlefield, I decided to take the audio driving tour.  I've gravitated towards this method of touring ever since a childhood trip to Gettysburg.  My Dad was a big fan, and I suppose his fondness rubbed off on me.  I purchased the audio tour and guidebook at the Henry Hill Visitor Center.  The package is produced by a private company known as "Travel Brains," but don't let the name fool you.  Overall, the tour was worthwhile and provided detailed information to supplement the National Park Service (NPS) brochure and the markers on the battlefield.  Those Civil War enthusiasts with extensive knowledge of the battle may find the tour a tad too basic.  I haven't read much on Second Manassas, so I appreciated the refresher.  The CD also gave useful, on-the-scene interpretations of what I was seeing on the battlefield.

A tour of the Second Manassas battlefield requires driving on some busy area roads.  As we headed down U.S.-29 (Lee Highway), I noticed tailgaters pressuring me to move faster.  Such behavior made my visit a little less pleasurable and prevented a more careful study of the surrounding terrain.  Pulling in and out of some tour stops also proved a bit dicey.  Needless to say, I am glad to hear that a by-pass of the battlefield is in the works.

The audio tour for some odd reason does not include the Brawner Farm, Tour Stop 1 on the NPS brochure.  Whatever you do, however, don't miss going to the Brawner Farm.  The NPS opened the site in 2007 after restoring the post-Civil War farmhouse and installing an Interpretive Center on Second Manassas.  Despite the old-school technology, the electric map in the farmhouse offers an excellent overview of troop positions over the course of the three-day engagement.  A variety of exhibits place the battle in a larger context and cover such topics as the court-martial of Gen. Fitz John Porter, a scapegoat of the Union defeat at Second Manassas.

The restored farmhouse at the Brawner Farm site.  The present structure was built after the Civil War and was enlarged in 1905.  John Brawner and his family moved to this site in 1857.  He leased the property and worked as a tenant farmer.  The original house was damaged during Second Manassas, and the Brawners moved away not long after the battle.
The Brawner Farm, of course, was the scene of Stonewall Jackson's attack on Union soldiers from John Pope's Army of Virginia on the evening of August 28, 1862.  Jackson intended to draw Pope into battle and prevent him from concentrating with the remainder of the Federal Army.  The fight is perhaps best known as the site of an encounter between two of the Civil War's most famous units--the Iron Brigade and the Stonewall Brigade.  Rufino and I took the Ranger-guided tour of the battle at Brawner Farm.  The Ranger re-traced the Union and Confederate lines and really helped us to visualize the brutal, close-range fighting that took place there.

View from the position of the Stonewall Brigade towards the area of the Union lines occupied by the Iron Brigade.
The Stone House (Tour Stop 3), at the junction of Sudley-Manassas Road (today's VA-234) and the Warrenton Turnpike (present-day U.S.-29).  The home is one of two pre-Civil War buildings that is still standing on the grounds of the national park.  During Second Manassas, the Stone House served a field hospital for the wounded.  Pope's retreating Federal troops passed by the house on the way back to the defenses of Washington.
The Unfinished Railroad (Tour Stop 6) made a lasting and haunting impression.  On August 29, 1862, elements of Pope's army launched a series of attacks against Jackson's men, who were positioned along the grade of an unfinished railroad.  Today, the tranquility of the quiet, wooded setting stands in sharp contrast to the savage killing that happened at the same spot 150 years ago.  Although a breeze gently blew through the trees, the air seemed strangely leaden.  I am not an overly supernatural person, but I somehow felt surrounded by the very spirits of those who had fought and died there.

Looking down the unfinished railroad cut.  Confederate defenders from Jame Archer's Brigade, A.P. Hill's Division, occupied the ground to the left.  Federal soldiers from Col. Daniel Leasure's Brigade of Isaac Stevens' Division of the Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac attacked across the cut.  The bodies of Union dead and wounded covered the slope of the embankment.  A one-mile loop trail allows visitors to explore this truly hallowed ground. 
A few other stops on the battlefield also deserve top billing.  The Deep Cut (Tour Stop 7) witnessed a massive Federal assault on Jackson's right flank by Porter's Fifth Corps and part of Gen. Irvin McDowell's Third Corps on the afternoon of August 30, 1862.  At one point, Jackson's men, running low on ammunition, threw rocks at their attackers.  It is well worth the time to hike up the slope where the Union force advanced to the Confederate lines along the unfinished railroad bed.  The sweeping view from the top conveys a feeling for the vastness of the Union attack.  Chinn Ridge (Tour Stop 10) was the site of a Federal fight to delay Gen. James Longstreet's counter-attack on the afternoon of August 30.  Nearly 30,000 Confederates had surged forward and overwhelmed the Union left flank.  A desperate stand by Union troops on Chinn Ridge helped to prevent complete annihilation of Pope's army.  The placement of markers and artillery do a commendable job of interpreting the fighting that occurred there.

Looking up the slope towards the site of the Confederate line at the Deep Cut.  Porter's men advanced across this ground on August 30.  The Groveton Monument, erected by Union veterans after the war, is visible at the top of the hill to the center-right.
The unfinished railroad bed at the Deep Cut.  Confederates from William E. Starke's Division repulsed the Federal attack from this position.  I can't help but wonder whether some of the rocks were intentionally placed there to evoke images of the famous "stone fight."
Marker on Chinn Ridge indicating the position of the 73rd Ohio Infantry of Col. Nathaniel McLean's Brigade, First Division, First Corps, Army of Virginia, which fought to stem the tide of Longstreet's advancing Confederates on August 30.
Vantage point of a gunner with the 5th Maine Battery on Chinn Ridge.  Longstreet's men advanced across the field in front of the 12-pounder Napoleon.  The fighting here bought Pope additional time to mount a defense at Henry Hill.
As Rufino and I left the battlefield, I pondered why Second Manassas lives in the shadows of the much smaller battle that occurred there in July 1861.  The Park Ranger at Brawner Farm told me that around one in three tourists go to the Henry Hill Visitor Center, compared to just one in ten who stop by the Interpretive Center for Second Manassas.  The 1861 engagement looms large as the first major land battle of the war.  The exalted Stonewall Jackson won his nom de guerre there.  And we've all heard about the death of poor widow Henry or the congressmen and civilians who rode out to watch the battle.  The country, so the story goes, lost its innocence on the fields of Manassas and braced for a long, violent war.  This is the stuff of myth and legend. 

Second Manassas, although a significant victory for Robert E. Lee, is sandwiched in between Lee's emergence at the Seven Days Battles and Antietam, the bloodiest single day in U.S. history.  The long-dominant Lost Cause school of interpretation had little use for Longstreet and his spectacular counter-attack, and the Northern victors of the war viewed Union commanders like Pope, McDowell, and Franz Sigel as less than heroic or else entirely forgettable.  Is it any wonder that the battle failed to inspire the popular imagination in the same way as First Bull Run?  Second Manassas, however, deserves more from us.  After all, the battle, which resulted in yet another crushing Union defeat, showcased the formidable fighting prowess of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and opened the way for the Confederate invasion of Maryland.  I hope that the 150th anniversary will focus more attention on this critical and fascinating battle.  And those looking for a perfect way to commemorate Second Manassas this year should consider heading to the battlefield and walking the very ground where the armies clashed.

For more information:

The National Park Service website for Manassas National Battlefield Park contains a wealth of information on visiting the battlefield of Second Manassas.

For more details on Second Manassas, check out the Civil War Trust's page on the battle.

The National Park Service is planning several days of Sesquicentennial-related activities from August 25-September 2, 2012.  More information can be found here

The City of Manassas and Historic Manassas, Inc. are also sponsoring 150th commemorative activities.  Check out the schedule here.


Greg Taylor said...

This evokes my memory of visiting the Manassas Battlefield last summer. I too had an eerie feeling as I walked the Unfinished Railroad Cut. It is the one part of the battlefield where I seemed to sense the presence of the participants of this monumental struggle.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Greg--Thanks for sharing your impressions. I am glad to see that I was not alone in having such feelings! "Eerie" is a good word for it. And I don't think I've ever felt so connected to what it must have been like.

Michael Weeks said...

Thanks Greg - glad to see you made it out there.

I haven't heard the audio tour, but I'm guessing it may have been produced before the Brawner Farm visitor center opened up - 2009, I think? In any case, it's a wonderful addition, long overdue.

Also worth mentioning is the change in the landscape over the last 10 years or so. My first time at the park, the Deep Cut area was just a mess of trees; I couldn't grasp what happened. Visiting after they restored the area to something resembling its 1862 appearance made a huge difference for me.

Finally, just in a press release today - Civil War Trust is releasing a Second Manassas battle app for the sesquicentennial this weekend!

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks for your comment.

I think you are right. The audio tour and guidebook are copyrighted 2007, and Brawner Farm opened in August 2007. It is very likely that the site opened after the tour was published.

I went to Manassas NBP for the first time in 1985 or 1986, and I don't even think that the Park Service owned some parts of the Second Manassas battlefield that belong to the park today. I read about the efforts to restore the landscape to its 1862 appearance. Thanks for pointing this out! (The Historical Marker Database has some photos of the Unfinished RR that show just how overgrown the area was only a few years ago.)

I saw the same release. Very exciting, and now I have another reason to tour the battlefield! It came a few months too late for this time around.

Age of Reason said...

I also don't consider myself to be (too) superstitious, but there was certainly a "leaden" quality to the air - a perfect description - at that site, and others around the park I felt. Truly hallowed ground.

Thanks for the discourse on Second Manassas's stature when compared to other better known battles. This is interesting for the many reasons you point out. The nation may have lost its innocence at First Manassas, but the results of Second Manassas must have been absolutely terrifying for the Union as the culmination of a series of routes that were only turned later in the war by sheer numerical and material advantage (and generals who were more disposed to aggressively committing these advantages in battle).

Ron Baumgarten said...

Yes, "Age of Reason," we certainly felt a sense that something was all around us at the Unfinished Railroad stop! As we discussed that day, I hadn't really experienced such a sense of "hallowed ground" before, in all my previous trips to battlefields.

Second Manassas certainly sent the Union troops into a bit of depression and had Notherners worried. Could anyone beat Lee? The soldiers, however, soon got their beloved Little Mac back. This provided a lift in spirits, even if Antietam wasn't decisive like it could have been. Burnside and Hooker both lost to Lee, and morale took a hit. Lee was at his very high point. Then came Gettysburg (and Vicksburg), and spirits lifted again. Grant was tenacious, but the huge casualties alarmed the North. Even then, victory was not entirely certain. The whole story for the Union is really a series of up's and down's, until ultimately the Western Confederacy was crushed and in the East, Lee was worn down and defeated.