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Posted on Feb 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

The First Battle Of Bull Run, An American Rubicon

By Bryce T. Valentine

Any well-traveled Historian will tell you: there is an immense sense of power that one feels when one literally stands in the footsteps of the few great men who actually have changed the course of history. Although any battlefield is made hallowed by the actions of those brave souls who may have fought on it, there are very few opportunities left to examine the actual battlefields in American History that have remained in very nearly the same conditions as when the battle was actually fought. Indeed, there are fewer battle sites in the continental U.S. that have proven as significant to the course of American Military History as can be found here in the gentle, rolling hills of Manassas, Virginia. What is certainly beyond debate is the fact that these hills saw not only the birth of the two principal Armies which would contest for control of this vital theatre of operations, it would also expose much as to the tactics which would eventually come to define combat typical of the Eastern American Civil War. Furthermore, it was also these fields and streams which served as the scene of the first operational appearance for what would come to be regarded as, perhaps, the most celebrated and influential Army in American Military History- The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Come with me, then, to re-examine the Battlefields of Manassas, Virginia, as we consider the historical relevance of this splendid Park.

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A contemporary view of the battlefield

As you walk at a leisurely pace from the Battlefield Park Center, it is easy to find the epicenter of the entire Park complex. The Visitors Center for the Manassas Parks sits above the top plateau of Henry Hill. The choice is no accident; it sits astride the field which saw the culminating action on the day of  Sunday, July 21, 1861. Within these walls there is a modern museum, featuring multi-media presentations about the two battles fought on these lands. There is also an impressive array of battle artifacts, as well as a first-rate bookstore. Shortly beyond its doors are the parallel rows of cannon in essentially the same positions they were during the final significant artillery duel of the day. There is also an exceptional equestrian statue of Maj. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the spot where he both rallied the shattered remnants the commands of Generals Bee, Evans and Bartow, and forever earned his sobriquet of Stonewall. There is also the Henry Hill House, a modest structure which both gives the Hill its name and sits perilously close to where the fighting took place on that day. The story of the sufferings of the household residents during the battle, as well as the anguish that took place there after the battle when it served as a field Hospital, are well told by the Park custodians.

If you are lucky enough to visit during the warmer spring and summer months, I would certainly recommend you take the short walking tour of the Battlefield. If the days’ temperatures start to rise, it will be easier to imagine the effects of topography upon the battle participants. Some demands of the topography would become both readily apparent and doggedly constant during the numerous battles in Virginia which were to follow. The combination of the high temperatures and deadly humidity would be a factor for most of the Northern Troops. Contemporary accounts of these Union soldiers decry the Virginia climate as to be comparable to those found in Dante’s Inferno. The constant marching along dusty dirt roads, traveling all the while in heavy woolen uniforms and carrying large rifles among their provisions, had a noticeable deleterious effect among the many Union soldiers from Northern climes.

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The battle at its height

The fact that crucial early portions of the battle (The Affair at Blackburns’ Ford, General Evans Defense) concerned the search and seizure of fordable river-crossing points was also a harbinger of another aspect of battle planning that would dominate the coming tactical struggle in Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia has innumerable rivers that run across the State; attaining and controlling the appropriate fording points therefore would influence nearly all of the battles in the Union land campaigns to capture Richmond until it finally fell in 1865. Furthermore, strategically, the control of fording points was greatly aided by the fact that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was both fighting on its homelands and enjoyed interior lines of communication and supply. It was this advantage born of familiarity that allowed the South an incomparable advantage when choosing tactical positions to defend. Ironically, perhaps one of the best examples of this tactic can also be seen at Manassas Park, as General Jackson also famously deployed his forces again with genius during the 2nd Battle of Bull Run. During that battle, his army’s familiarity with the area allowed him to quickly discover and deploy his forces along the unfinished railway cut, where his Army remained entrenched and repelled Northern Forces with devastating effect.

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