The Manassas Battlefield-Henry Hill Visitor Center
June 29, 2008
Today I am flying back home to Denver. My flight was scheduled to leave at , so I was hoping I could take some time and see Manassas Battlefield, which is just a mile or so away.The only obstacle was that I was sharing the rental car with Matt, one of the guys from Milwaukee. His flight left much earlier, and if I had to take him to Dulles, it wouldn’t make sense to try to back track.
Six Pound Canister
I didn’t have a lot of hope, but Matt made a point of checking to see if our hotel had a shuttle that would take him to Dulles. It did, and he had no problem using it. Perhaps, the fact that I picked up the bar tab at last nights post-DC dinner factored in. But, I’m probably just being overly cynical.
The Visitor’s Center at the BattlefieldPark opened at . My plan was to be there shortly after it opened and spend two or two and half hours there. I Map quested directions, but evidently I either have a learning disability or they were wrong. I went south and couldn’t find the exit. I went east to try to link up with the turn off. That didn’t work. I finally back tracked, went north and found the right turns off. Even after I got to the battlefield the map didn’t make sense. I threw it in the trash to prove my supremacy over a piece of paper.
The Henry Hill Monument, honoring those who fought
I was a half hour behind schedule. I was disappointed not only in the lost time, but because the time I lost was cool morning time. Hot morning time was rapidly on its way. I went into the Visitor’s Center/Museum and paid my admission. The Park Service guy gave me a quick overview and a recommendation for the amount of time I had to spend. There were several trails that would take you to various parts of the battlefield. I only had time for the short Henry Hill trail.
But first I took a quick tour of the Museum. They had several displays, but the one that really caught my eye was the one with the 6 pound canister. A canister is kind of like a very large shotgun shell for the cannon. It is a cylinder packed with lead balls the size of small plums. The cylinder/canister is packed into the cannon, with a charge of gun powder and when the charge is ignited (touched off); the carnage this would cause was devastating.
Judith Henry's grave
Battles in the Civil War, especially early on featured Napoleonic tactics, with lines and lines of men marching forward. When a canister shot would be leveled against the advancing lines, 10 to 20 foot sections of men would fall. Getting hit anywhere would guarantee that you were at least out of action, if not killed. Taking one of these balls in a limb meant a surgeon would be sawing off what ever the shot did not carry away.
Directly outside the museum was a row of cannons, and a display to explain the Henry Hill walking trail and a bit about the battle. This leads into another history lesson. There were two battles fought here in Manassas. The Northerners called them the First and Second Battles of Manassas, or just First Manassas and Second Manassas. The Southerners called them The First and Second Battles of Bull Run. The different descriptors are due to the naming rules of the two sides. The Union generally named a battle after the nearest town.
The Stone House
The Rebels generally named them after a physical feature of the land. Bull Run is a small creek that runs through the battlefield.
The trail and site that covered the First Battle of Manassas was all that I would have time to tour. First Manassas was the first major battle of the Civil War. When it was fought on July 21, 1861 many in the North thought this was going to be a quick war. The better funded and more numerous Union troops would handle the Southern rebels quickly. Things didn’t turn out that way.
But, that is what was expected. There was no secret that a battle was joining to take place and people from nearby WashingtonDC showed up to watch as if it would be sort of gladiatorial display.
Insciption on General Bee's Memorial.
Lunches, lemonade and chairs were packed. And in the early stages of the battle it looked like both sides were following the Vegas line. The Union troops had the upper hand, with the Southern disciple starting to break and the men starting to retreat. Rebel General Bernard Bee was trying to rally his men, when he looked behind him and saw General Thomas Jackson with his artillery troops and cannons. He yelled
“Form! Form! (The command to make straight battle lines and face the enemy) There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”
It worked; the Southern boys made a stand and turned the tide of battle. And, not inconsequentially a legend was born. Not General Bernard Bee, who was killed in battle just minutes after making his plea.
Plaque on Stone House property
No, that day, the legend of Stonewall Jackson was to carry to troops on both sides of the fight.
I already knew this story before I arrived, but reading the words, and seeing the cannons and topography, I got goose bumps. I can only imagine what it was like 145 years ago.
I spent about two hours wandering the Henry Hill trail. I saw the Henry home. Henry was the name of the family that owned a good part of the land where First Manassas was fought. The "Hill" part came from the high ground on the farm. The matriarch, Judith Henry, in her eighties, was the only civilian casualty that day. She had not wanted to leave her home and was killed when battle fire passed through her home. I also saw the Stone House, which was used as a hospital that day.
Most accounts of the battle mention this house, as it was such a prominent landmark.
I learned quite a bit about the people of lived on the land during the battle. But, mostly, I picked up things about the battle and then the quest to honor those who fought and fell during the battles. There are numerous markers and memorials to those men. Some very specific, like the large statue of General Jackson, and some, like the Henry Hill Memorial, cast the net to capture all the men who fought.
I wished I could have spent all day there. I would have loved to wander all of the various trails and see all that the park had to offer. But, I had to settle for the time I had. But, all too soon I was back in my car and heading for Dulles International and my flight home. But, I can tell you I will never forget my first experience on a Civil War battlefield. I’m looking forward to my trip to Gettysburg!
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