Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The 150th at Manassas

On July 21, 1861, the first major land battle of the American Civil War erupted on the plains of Manassas in Northern Virginia. 150 years (and 2 days) later, I had the great honor of journeying to those same plains, NPS Ranger hat in tow, to spend the day outside greeting visitors and helping to explain the significance of those same events.

With temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, it was a day best spent inside for many. Not so for yours truly. I spent the day traversing between different stations on the Henry Hill walking tour of 1st Manassas, answering questions, helping folks fill up on water, and providing whatever interpretation of the battle that I could. For the majority of the people I met, their first and only interest was in staying hydrated and stopping to chat about the days events. Others had routine questions about where Jackson was when he earned his famous sobriquet, what happened to Judith Henry of Henry House, who commanded which army, what the deal is with different names for the same battle... you get the idea.

For most of the day, I was positioned at Ranger stops near the spot where Jackson's line stood on the afternoon of July 21. These stops saw few visitors, giving me lots of time to take in the days events from afar. Even though events between 2 and 6 were cancelled because of the heat (heat index was 115), it was still an amazing thing to sit on the battlefield and think about the experience of battle 150 years ago.

Of the many pictures I took, here are some of the best which I thought might give you an idea of what my day at Manassas was truly like...

Arriving on the field just before 8 AM, I had the place nearly all to myself. I was truly in awe when I first walked onto the field. The day was just beginning, yet it was still unbelievably hot. I took a few moments to take pictures and simply enjoy being there before I began to make my way out to my stations. There were many tents, chairs, and a stage set up right behind the Visitor Center, signifying the importance of the four day commemorations for the battle.

A beautiful sky over the field in the morning.

You know you are somewhere important when C-SPAN shows up...

The guns from James Rickett's Battery, sitting near the Henry House, a rebuilt version of the same home guns in this position fired into on July 21, 1861 to rid it of Confederate sharpshooters, killing 85 year old widow Judith Carter Henry in the process.

One of the many NPS tents doubling as a Ranger and water station.

Living history reenactors' tents complete with battle flags near the Henry House

Monument to the Union soldiers who died at First Bull Run, dedicated on June 13, 1865, making it one of the first Civil War monuments to be created.

One of the several living history groups on Henry Hill performing a musket firing demonstration for visitors

Stop 1 for my day, the Henry Hill overlook. In the distance, one can see Matthews Hill, where the fighting began in earnest at around 9:30 in the morning on July 21, 1861. Union troops from the divisions of David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman were ordered on a flanking movement by commanding Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell. The Confederate brigade of Nathan Evans was notified of this movement and shifted west from their position at the Stone Bridge to attempt to block this flanking force. It was on this hill where Col. Ambrose Burnside's brigade met Evans men that morning. It was also on this hill where Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, author of the famous letter to his wife professing his love of country and the premonition of his death, was mortally wounded.

Ranger Dan with the Stone House and Matthews Hill in the background.

Stop 2 for my day was the site of the Robinson House, where only the foundations remain. James Robinson was a freed black man who lived on the 1st Manassas Battlefield. While his home and family escaped harm that day, the house was lost to suspected arson in 1993. Only the foundation still exists, with little else to signify the importance of this spot.

Stop 3 for me, where I spent most of my afternoon, was the small Ranger tent located behind Jackson's statue. It was here, on the downward slope of the hill, where Jackson made his famous stand. Nathan Evans's brigade, along with the brigades of Barnard Bee and Francis Bartow, were pushed off Matthews Hill, leaving few Confederate troops in the way of a Union victory. However, without orders, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a professor from VMI, had moved his brigade of Virginians over to Henry Hill to support Evans, Bartow, and Bee and to make a defensive stand. Here, Jackson would firmly hold the Confederate line that day through several hours of fierce back and forth fighting between regiments and batteries of both armies. It was here where Jackson earned his famous name of "Stonewall" when Brigadier General Barnard Bee proclaimed to his men, "Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer! Follow me!"

Shortly after this now famous episode, Barnard Bee was mortally wounded. He succumbed to his wounds the next day. Not far from where the statue of Jackson sits, famously echoing Bee's words and pointing towards Jackson's destiny of being one of the most revered figures in American history, there is a marker signifying the spot where Bee met his own fate.

Out at Jackson's line, I had an excellent view of the artillery demonstrations taking place at the Henry House.

Always an awesome sight to see artillery pieces fired on a Civil War battlefield.

All in all, my day at Manassas was quite enjoyable. My final stop was at the Henry House, where I had begun my day many hours earlier. It was a bit busier at this site, as I had the chance to talk to a few folks about what happened during the battle and what its significance was, but again, the main interest of many folks was in drinking lots of the cold water we were providing. While I was dissapointed I did not have more opportunities to discuss the history and significance of the battle and to do interpretation, looking back on my experience, it was still a remarkable day. While not what I had expected and prepared for, it was amazing to simply be out on the battlefield as a Park Ranger for the 150th anniversary of the battle. Greeting people, chatting with visitors, and experiencing the events and the atmosphere are things I will never forget. The heat and the nearby reenactment drew some visitors away from the park, but it was still a great place to be with a good crowd of nice people hoping to learn a thing or two about history and to pay their respects to those who sacrificed for us.

I think when I look back upon my day at Manassas, what I will remember most won't be the heat, the sparse crowds, or the logistical difficulties of the day. Rather, when I look back, I will remember how amazing it was to be on the same field where 150 years earlier Thomas Jonathan Jackson became "Stonewall" Jackson, where JEB Stuart led a Confederate cavalry charge for the first time, where William Tecumseh Sherman led troops against Henry Hill, and where Americans began to realize that war was not a quick and easy affair.  While other battles had more casualties than 1st Manassas, few had more long reaching implications. Not only did 1st Manassas erase hopes of a quick end to the war, but it sparked the Civil War careers of some of that conflicts most famous officers and generals. In commemorating the 150th anniversary of 1st Manassas, we are remembering far more than the battle of July 21, 1861; rather, we are remembering that day, and the many days like it over the next four years which would forever change America.

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