While South Carolinians can claim the shots that launched the Civil War, the first major clash of armies occurred near the small Virginia town of Manassas Junction. The men who crossed Sudley Springs Ford and defended Henry Hill were largely inexperienced volunteers, many of whom, at least on the Federal side, were at the end of their 90-day terms of enlistment. That battle was their first test as soldiers, and it clarified for those in the field and at home that this war would not be settled with a single fight.
Nearly all the Civil War national military parks have websites that offer basic visitor information and battle summaries. A number of the major battlefields go beyond this, offering extensive sites that include lesson plans for teachers, letter and diary excerpts from participants, maps and other historical information. “First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence” is one of the best of these online resources, supplementing an already strong official park service site that readers can find at nps.gov/mana/index.htm.
“First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence” is based on a lesson created by Michael Literst, former park ranger and supervisory historian at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Teachers will appreciate the thoughtful questions that accompany carefully selected primary source materials— including a contemporary sketch of the famous Henry House, which rests atop Henry Hill, where Confederate commander Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson earned his nickname. Visitors can read the Sullivan Ballou letter made famous in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, along with an equally moving account by South Carolina Private J.W. Reid and a postwar civilian recollection of the horrific experiences of Judith Carter Henry, one of the battle’s civilian casualties.
All the primary materials are accompanied by historical commentary and interpretive questions to inspire visitors to consider the battle’s direct and indirect impact on the soldiers and civilians involved, as well as their families at home. If you’re getting ready to explore the first major battle of America’s bloodiest war, this is a wonderful place to start.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.