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Monday, July 20, 2020

First Manassas Battlefield Hiking Trail

The First Battle of Bull Run (the name used by Union forces), also known as the First Battle of Manassas (the name used by Confederate forces), was the first major battle of the American Civil War and was a Confederate victory. The battle was fought on July 21, 1861 near Manassas, Virginia, about 25 miles from Washington, D.C. The Union's forces were slow in positioning themselves, allowing Confederate reinforcements time to arrive by rail. Each side had about 18,000 poorly trained and poorly led troops in their first battle. It was a Confederate victory, followed by a disorganized retreat of the Union forces.

Just months after the start of the war at Fort Sumter, the Northern public clamored for a march against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, which was expected to bring an early end to the Confederacy. Yielding to political pressure, Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell led his unseasoned Union Army across Bull Run against the equally inexperienced Confederate Army of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard camped near Manassas Junction. McDowell's ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack on the Confederate left was poorly executed; nevertheless, the Confederates, who had been planning to attack the Union left flank, found themselves at an initial disadvantage.

Confederate reinforcements under Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad, and the course of the battle quickly changed. A brigade of Virginians under the relatively unknown brigadier general from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, stood its ground, which resulted in Jackson receiving his famous nickname, "Stonewall". The Confederates launched a strong counterattack, and as the Union troops began withdrawing under fire, many panicked and the retreat turned into a rout. McDowell's men frantically ran without order in the direction of Washington, D.C.

Both armies were sobered by the fierce fighting and the many casualties and realized that the war was going to be much longer and bloodier than either had anticipated. The First Battle of Bull Run highlighted many of the problems and deficiencies that were typical of the first year of the war. Units were committed piecemeal, attacks were frontal, infantry failed to protect exposed artillery, tactical intelligence was minimal, and neither commander was able to employ his whole force effectively.

-- Wikipedia

Our campground at Bull Run Regional Park is just a couple miles from the Manassas National Battlefield Park.  Union and Confederate forces fought two battles at the site of the national park.  The first was just at the start of the war in 1861; the second 13 months later.  Union forces lost both battles.  The national park memorializes and interprets both battles through separate trails that explore the respective fields of battle.

We thought it would make sense to start with the First Manassas Battle Trail, which winds over hills and through farmfields west of Bull Run.  Part of the trail skirts along the bank of Bull Run itself, near Stone Bridge, which was part of the scene of the first battle.

It's wicked hot here -- a projected high today of 98F -- so we were up and out early, hitting the trail at 7:45 am, with the sun barely up in the sky:

We arrived before the visitor center opened, so, as we looked for our trailhead, we encountered this statue of Stonewall Jackson at the top of Henry Hill --

-- and a battery of cannon lining one ridge.  This one is representative:

We found the trail, well marked and beckoning us into woods with their cool shady welcome:

For most of the hike, nature, and not war history, dominated our view.  A surprising variety of wildflowers are at peak bloom, such as these black-eyed susans --

-- and these pretty little blue cornflowers --

-- and these, which we think are pandorea:

Kathy spotted some black raspberries that are almost at the height of ripeness.  They were tasty!

We think we spotted the season's last daylilies in Manassas:

Not to be outdone by the flora, the fauna made their own appearance.  This little squirrel was so busy with his nut or seed that he didn't bother running away as we approached:

And this little tree frog, with several of his friends, made their appearance on a long boardwalk we crossed as we neared Stone Bridge:

The first battle at Manassas involved a Union attempt to convince the Confederates that they were crossing Bull Run at Stone Bridge (below) in order to meet the South in battle, while in fact the majority of Union troops marched further upstream to cross at Farm Ford.  An interesting side note, recounted on one of the historical markers, is that the Union general found the upstream fording opportunity when a Confederate soldier rode his horse down across Bull Run to taunt the Northern troops -- which alerted the latter to the fact that the water was shallow enough to cross at that point.  The Union attempt was in vain, however, because Confederate scouts spotted the flanking maneuver and signalled back to the commanding general that the Stone Bridge crossing was a diversion.

We took an opportunity soon after passing Stone Bridge to find a convenient streamside log to eat our sausage-and-bagel breakfast.  It was the last of our most recent purchase of Oscar's Smokehouse smoked sausage from the Adirondacks in Warrensburg, New York.  Noting this fact, we immediately made plans to return to Oscar's next fall when we visit David's brother Laird, sister-in-law Risa and their family.  We think the perfect time to visit is on the last day that Albany, New York's Kurver Kreme is open to sell ice cream before winter comes.  Kurver Kreme is Laird's and Risa's favorite treat-place!

While Bull Run looked lush and cool with its drapery of green --

-- the truth was, that it was hot and steamy, and with no breeze in the stream valley, it was stifling.  We discovered, to our pleasure, that the open hillsides were cooler because a fresh breeze blew across our faces and cooled us down.

We stopped at the Carter Farm site and paid our respects at the family cemetery.  The stone walls of the cemetery were taken from the ruins of the family home, Pittsylvania, which by the time of the Civil War was already run down, but which was further damaged by the Manassas battles.

The last part of our hike was up and down open farm hillsides under a blue sky with just enough clouds to filter the sun and prevent us from being roasted:

Old split rail fences mark the farm fields and delineate areas where the battles occurred.  From some drawings of the land at the time of the Manassas battles, the farm fields don't look a lot different than they did during the Civil War.

This view is from the height of Matthews Hill, down toward Stone House in the foreground, and across Highway 29 toward Henry Hill.  At the top of Henry Hill stands a brown wooden house on the site of the Henry homestead (ruined in the battles), near which is the Henry family cemetery.  Judith Henry, the wife of the owner of the farm, was a widow at the time of the Manassas battles and was killed by Union's shelling of the Henry home to deny its use to the Confederates; she was the only civilian casualty of the Manassas battles, which were otherwise bloody.  At the center of Henry Hill, beyond the wooden house, stands the Manassas National Battlefield Park Visitor Center.  That was our goal as we hiked to complete our loop.

We hiked down past Stone House and back up Henry Hill to where a big old juniper tree offered us some shade as we read a summary of the outcome of the morning battle of First Manassas:

Hiking further on, we reached the site of the Henry homestead, where a monument erected just after the Civil War in honor of Union dead, still stands.  A plaque notes that this is the oldest monument standing on any of the Civil War battlefields.

We were relieved (and very wet with sweat) to arrive back at the Visitor Center after this 6 miles of hot hiking.  It had opened while we were out on our walking tour, so we stepped up to the porch where we were offered the park brochure and detailed hiking map.  Perhaps we'll use the hiking map if we come back to hike the Second Manassas Battlefield Trail.

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