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“You don’t celebrate an event in which 621,000 people are going to die,” historian Edwin C. Bearss told an audience at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of First Manassas. “Again, we commemorate the Civil War.”
Thus the sesquicentennial commemoration of the first major battle of the Civil War took place at Manassas, Virginia, July 21–24. 2011. On Henry Hill, the pivotal location of this battle—called First Bull Run by the Union and First Manassas by the Confederates—the ceremonies commenced with remarks by Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and other officials. This was only the beginning of what proved to be one of the largest commemorations of a historical event in recent memory.
Three entities—the National Park Service, Prince William County and City of Manassas—organized activities and events covering a broad spectrum of the battle, the Civil War and the impact on history. More than 37,000 people came from all over the United States and other countries to see or be a part of the 150th commemoration. And while organizers, as well as the many police, emergency personnel, staff and volunteers, did a masterful job of managing crowds and traffic, they could not control the heat, which ranged at times from 115 to 120 degrees on the humidity index. Unlike the day of the battle, in which temperatures also exceeded 100 degrees, the only casualties this time were a few people affected by the heat. Most of these were quickly treated on site.
The culmination of the 150th was the reenactment of the principal actions of the July 21, 1861, battle staged twice over the weekend. Many of the 8,700 registered reenactors participated in these. There were many other wonderful things taking place during the four days, including period music, lectures, movies, demonstrations of historic lifestyles and lots of children’s activities. A commemoration of the Peace Jubilee—the 50th anniversary of the battle—was held on the site where in 1911 veterans of the battle, North and South, came together as friends and countrymen. Modern dignitaries mixed with re-created officials from 1911, including President Howard P. Taft who arrived in an antique car. Among those participating in this event were four reenactors from the 100th anniversary battle recreation.
The events were scattered among nine historic locations in Manassas and at the Manassas National Battlefield. At Camp Manassas, located at Jennie Dean Historical Site, there were displays on the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, which Dean—a former slave—founded there in 1893. There was plenty of music, period baseball and savory food such as would have been prepared in the 1860s at Camp Manassas. In Old Town Manassas there were military drills, model train displays and more good food. And on Henry Hill at Manassas NBP there were weapons demonstrations, displays by state and local Civil War commemoration groups and, of course, more great food. The success enjoyed by this event should set the tone for a lively commemoration of the Civil War during the next four years.
About the Author:
Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He is also the author of The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publication is War Stories: The Pacific, Vol. I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, published by World History Group Publications.
To learn more about the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas:
Irvin McDowell’s Best Laid Plans
The Union commander at 1st Bull Run/1st Manassas was defeated by the arrival of Confederate troops from the Shenandoah Valley—that’s the long-accepted version of events. But McDowell’s own plans for the battle show he expected to fight outnumbered.
Recently Discovered Memoir about Gen. T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson
Excerpts from a journal written by Clement Daniels Fishburne, a good friend of Jackson’s from Lexington, Virginia, include the movements of Jackson and his men to reach Manassas from the Shenandoah Valley and the fighting on Henry Hill.
More photos from the 150th anniversary of 1st Bull Run/1st Manassas, and a Civil War reenactment in Minnesota:
Reenactors came from as far south as Texas and as far north as Winnepeg, Canada, to honor Minnesota’s Civil War history.
Click this link to read more about the events of the Manassas/Bull Run anniversary.