From Henry Hill, there’s been a Southern perspective for 150 years at Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Even on weekends, Interstate 66 west of Washington, D.C., can choke up with traffic. One minute you’re thinking it would be nice to live out here, away from the capital, where there’s grass and trees and a lot less noise. Then suddenly the highway ahead of you glows with an angry snarl of red taillights. It can take more than an hour to traverse the roughly 20 miles to Centreville that Union Brigadier General Irvin McDowell marched his army on the way to the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861.
The car has been the best and worst thing to happen to the war’s great battlefields. Were it not for the surge of mobility that began early in the 20th century, it’s doubtful we’d have any battlefield parks. It was on a car trip back from the Shenandoah Mountains, along the same road that traverses the blood-soaked fields near Bull Run, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inspired to transfer control over the nation’s battlefields from the War Department to the National Park Service.
The establishment of a federal park at the site was spurred by a New Deal program to create recreation areas accessible to major cities. But along with cars came suburban sprawl. Today, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of First Manassas, there’s persistent tension between the landscape of the automobile and the long-lost world of transport by foot, horse or train. The battle site feels cloistered, an oasis from the past, hemmed in on all sides by modern development. The sense of being inside a refuge, and still a little embattled, is enhanced by the design of the exhibits as well as the Visitors Center.
From the viewpoint of sightseers at the Visitors Center, a curiously antebellum building finished in 1942, it’s astonishing just how well the battle landscape has been preserved. A century of rapid development is mostly invisible. True, two modern roads divide the site, and an endless stream of jets—incoming and outgoing at nearby Dulles Airport—is a reminder of 21st-century realities. Fortunately the roads are still only two lanes wide, and the planes are a silent if surreal presence. After vigorous protests by preservationists, in 1957 plans to run the interstate through the park were scuttled. I-66 forms part of the battlefield’s southern boundary, yet encroaches very little on its atmosphere. What was once Manassas Junction, a rail hub, has been swallowed whole by strip malls and commerce, but that noisy distraction is a few miles away.
Of course, given the way history is told at Manassas, the rail junction’s strategic importance is mostly an afterthought. The rail crossroads is mentioned in wall texts, as is the critical importance of the Manassas Gap Railroad, which brought Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate reinforcements from the west, which turned the tide of battle: the first major use of rail as a strategic tool. But the fight itself is all that seems to matter at Manassas. The exhibits focus squarely on tactics and the shifting tide of battle, from a Southern stumble to a Northern rout.
The best battlefield museums maintain balance between the big picture and the details, between social history and minute-by-minute troop movements. Manassas’ small museum makes reference to slavery and the larger causes of the war, and also touches on the fascinating social history—the confidence, the naiveté—surrounding a battle that saw two very green armies meet, with many on both sides convinced that this single battle might decisively end the war. But the display space is dominated in one room by artillery details and in another by a large oval terrain map. The displays that touch on larger issues feel like tentative sideshows.
“It’s been dicey,” says historian Joan M. Zenzen, author of the 1998 book Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park, a detailed history of the park’s development. She’s referring to ongoing tensions between the site’s roots, in a preservation effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and its current stewardship by the National Park Service. After struggling for years to get Congress to allocate money to purchase land at Manassas, SCV members took matters into their own hands: In 1921 they established a small park at Henry Hill, using the rebuilt Henry House as a museum. When the land was transferred to the federal government, it came with a proviso: A visitors center must be built on Henry Hill, and all historic markers and monuments must accord proper respect to the “glory due the Confederate heroes.”
There was ample reason for the SCV to feel proprietary about Manassas: Two major Confederate victories were won on this ground, and Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson earned his nom de guerre, Stonewall, on Henry Hill. The SCV originally had big ideas for their park, which they envisioned as a kind of Southern Gettysburg—a grand pilgrimage and educational site—though those plans never came to fruition. But the first SCV park was created at a high-water mark of both Lost Cause ideology and Jim Crow. While nothing you’ll see today at the battlefield explicitly addresses those mind-sets, Manassas remains a place where you can feel the Old South struggling to feel good about itself, a landscape that’s tightly focused on glory and heroism rather than exploring the conflict’s larger geopolitical and moral background.
Presiding over everything at Manassas, commanding and over-scaled, is a statue of Stonewall on his legendary horse Little Sorrel. Commissioned by the state of Virginia from sculptor Joseph Pollia and unveiled in 1940, it’s the single best memorial on the battlefield. But its hyper-accentuated musculature and machine-age solidity harkens back to the sinewy aesthetic that was in vogue back then in authoritarian countries—nations the United States would fight in hot and cold wars that lasted almost half a century.
Next to this inspiring and horrifying bronze artwork, the 1865 Union memorial at Henry House looks pretty amateurish. It’s a crudely made obelisk of rough stone, with a bad scrawl of lettering memorializing Northern patriots.
Even the architecture of the Henry Hill Visitors Center reflects a fantasy of Southern insularity. It’s fronted by a four-column portico that references the South’s plantation houses of the South. Built during the Colonial Revival period of Federal architecture, it isn’t just a generic reproduction of antebellum style. Rather, its low but massive columns recall the portico at Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home. Until the great Union defeat at First Manassas, Lee’s home was treated with some respect by the Union brass who occupied it. Later in the war, in gestures rich in symbolism, its land would be used for a freed slave community and a national cemetery.
But at Manassas a reminiscence of Lee’s home stands alone, right in the middle of the battle site, removed from what some committed Confederate sympathizers might consider the history of indignity suffered by the original.
“We would never build a visitors center smack dab in the middle of the resource today,” says Ed Clark, the park’s superintendent. It isn’t just an intrusion in the middle of the ground where a critical artillery exchange transpired, it’s a visible intrusion from other essential vantage points in the park. From Matthews Hill, where Confederate forces fell back from a powerful flank attack on their left, the Visitors Center and rebuilt Henry House form what appears to be a single large industrial farm. It’s disorienting—one of the rare features within the battlefield grounds that feels entirely out of place.
Contemporary thinking would place a visitors center on the periphery of the park, and modern architectural practice would open up its windowless wings to admit at least a bit of natural light (with fragile or light-sensitive objects conserved in the darker sections). But as Zenzen points out, the building has now been there long enough to warrant its own claims to historic preservation.
Contemporary museum practice would also update the exhibits, and probably eliminate the large oval map that focuses on the moment-by-moment events of the battle. That would be a loss. If nothing else, the Visitors Center display is much better than most at clarifying the battle itself. When the map isn’t being used during lectures by a park ranger, using a metal pointer to explain what happened at each spot on the battlefield, it features a light display that clearly illustrates the turning points of the battle.
And while the Visitors Center is an intrusion on historic ground, it places visitors at the center of the action. First Manassas was relatively contained by the standards of later Civil War battles; a five-mile walking loop that starts from the Visitors Center is sufficient to take in a grand outline of the events of July 21, 1861. For example, the Stone Bridge, which played a critical role in both battles, is best seen on foot. Drivers crossing the river on the highway can easily miss the lower, sloping, arched stone crossing that has been reconstructed in its shadow.
Only on foot can the strategic importance of Bull Run itself be appreciated. In his novel Manassas, Upton Sinclair describes it as “the little stream,” and that’s the impression one gets from the historical record as well. But it actually isn’t so little, and its western bank is remarkably steep, making it clear why the several fords north of Manassas Junction were so heavily defended. And without a walk on the battleground, you can’t understand the emotional power that the contrast between open fields and seemingly protected forests had for troops. A small change in elevation can shift the horizon from a few hundred yards to several miles; within a few paces you can move from a sun-drenched field to a shadowy twilight of trees and scrub.
During a recent winter walk, the forests and clearings of Manassas offered a serendipitous blend of old and new, natural habitat and man-made convenience. Near the Carter Cemetery two deer appeared, calmly foraging for food. At the same time a jogger passed by on the main trail.
Manassas survives as a haven because it is so close to a major seat of power, because influential people have sought to preserve it, because senators and even presidents have been struck by the beauty of this stunning natural enclave, a 19th-century landscape encircled by modern suburbs. But it also survives as another kind of enclave, a landscape of remembrance dominated by Southern sentimentality. Visitors might look at Stonewall Jackson’s stern visage and think, “He won the battle, but the South lost the war.” But spend some time in this curious place and it may seem that here, at least, the South won both.
Philip Kennicott is the Washington Post’s culture critic.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.