Thursday, July 21, 2011

Like a Stonewall...

Or the Manassas Sesquicentennial Adventure

Thursday I had the opportunity of participating in the sesquicentennial event for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of First Bull Run. Many eyes were focused on this event given the worthy efforts of the National Park Service to make the war's outcomes relevant to broader audiences coupled with the undying contentiousness dealing with that war's causes and legacies. For me, one of the few downsides of the day was the incredibly oppressive heat - with the heat index rising to 110 degrees by that afternoon. Some events were curtailed as a result of the humidity, but the NPS did an admirable job on Thursday in keeping everybody safe and hydrated. Throughout the course of the day, I took dozens of photos of numerous commemorative events. In this time I saw some successes, some disappointments, and a lot of dedicated Civil War buffs who endured the heat to participate in this special day.

Dignitaries in attendance included local politicians, battle descendants, and historians. Reverend Dennis Lipke of the Sudley United Methodist Church in Manassas gave one of the finest invocations I have ever heard by including key themes of the Civil War and their enduring relevance today such as the never ending struggle of defining freedom. Corey Stewart of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors too gave a very impassioned speech discussing similar themes. Despite the withering heat, approximately 1,500 people were in attendance for this opening ceremony which began at 9:15 in the morning. The Park Service had prepared 5,000 tickets for the event, however, and visitation for this aspect of the weekend came greatly short of expectations.

The United States Marine Corps Band initiated the program with the National Anthem. This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance led by members of the Robinson Family. The truly sad part of this, however, was that the significance of the Robinson Family was not introduced to the audience. Even I did not realize it. Not until after the ceremony did I learn that these members were descendants of the James Robinson Family, an African American family which lived on the field at the time of the battle and lived through the hardest of times in Manassas. This would have been an excellent opportunity to connect visitors with the civilian experience and also correlate the horrors of slavery with a specific site (the Robinson Farm site) only a stone's throw away from the ceremony. Although James was a free man, his wife Susan and their six children remained in bondage.

A 2005 study by George Washington University addresses many of the challenges the National Park Services faces in interpreting slavery at pertinent historic sites and, in many cases, hesitancy to do so. Manassas Ranger Jim Burgess, who gave an anniversary tour the day I was present, was interviewed in this study. It noted: "According to Burgess, he has seldom felt the need to discuss slavery at the site 'unless in response to an occasional visitor question.' When asked about the additional comments on the interpretations of slavery at Manassas, Burgess stated, 'If the public is bombarded with the same interpretations of slavery at all the park, those parks will lose some of their individuality and significance . . . There are much better places than Manassas to effectively address the issue of slavery. Enhance discussions of slavery at those locations if necessary." To read the entirety of this Public History study, please visit here.

Regardless of what your vantage point at the ceremony was, you were likely to have a pretty good view thanks to the Jumbo Tron screens that were placed on either sides of the main stage. Here, the Marine Corps Band is seen exiting the stage area.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis delivered an excellent speech on the Civil War and the NPS's dedication in expanding its meanings and reinforcing its importance throughout the sesquicentennial initiative through 2015. The Park Service administers over seventy-five sites nationwide which interpret Civil War History. Just one segment of this initiative includes the distribution of Civil War Trading Cards to young visitors at these parks. (My apologies for the shaky camerawork. I had neither the time nor the space to set up my camera tripod.)

Naturally, the over-used and often misunderstood story of farmer Wilmer McLean was used. However, every speech addressed the centrality of slavery in the causes of the war, including Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's speech.

That made me wonder how gentlemen like these felt about that. Speaking to one spectator after the governor's address, he noted how McDonnell's speech "threw the Confederates under the bus." I responded by noting that the governor was likely still backpedaling following this event last year.

Dr. Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, delivered a very stirring, animated, and detailed speech entitled "The Battle of Manassas: America's Brief Civil War." In this, he placed citizens of Manassas within the larger picture of the war including the Robinson Family, widow Judith Henry, and young men of the area who enlisted in the Confederate Cause. In many cases, these ordinary individuals were both heroes and victims of circumstance but were also emblematic of a society attempting to maintain and/or redefine itself.

Following Ayers' speech, an entirely different venue followed - a demonstration by the United States Army Drill Team. Twirling and throwing their chrome-plated rifles through the air, they undoubtedly put on a pretty cool show of precision and timing. Here is where I'm going to differ in opinion a bit with my friends over at Interpreting the Civil War. Do I think a more substantive form of commemoration could have been implemented over rifle twirling? Absolutely. Do I think their demonstration dampened the ceremony or did not belong? Not really. I completely agree that events such as this should be held with solemnity and taste, but is a little bit of pageantry truly a negative thing for such commemorations? Regardless, Thursday's events exceeded those of fifty years ago by leaps and bounds.

The formal ceremony concluded with a stirring rendition of "Taps" played by the Marine Corps Band.

Afterward, visitors were free to roam the battlefield, exhibit tents, and demonstrations being held throughout the day. These included artillery demonstrations by bronze guns such as these positioned on Henry House Hill.

In a vain attempt to stay cool and somewhat shaded, I broke out my brand new straw hat. The monument dedicated in the "memory of the patriots who fell" in July 1861 was one of the earliest Civil War battlefield monuments dedicated in the United States, being consecrated on June 11, 1865. A July 1, 1865 article from Harper's Weekly noted that, "The battle of Bull Run was the first great battle of the war. It was proper that upon the field where it was fought should be erected the first monuments. The movement to erect such monuments on this field was quite impromptu. The idea was conceived by Lieutenant [James M.] Callum, of the Sixteenth Massachusetts Light Battery, and under his superintendence the structures were erected in four days, being completed June 10. The next day, the 11th, was chosen for the observance of appropriate dedicatory ceremonies." These veterans had very clear notions of what they wished to be remembered for. The memorial was among the first of thousands of commemorations to follow in the subsequent decades via reunions, anniversaries, and dedications.

Some other "patriots of '61" four years after First Bull Run.
(Library of Congress Photo)

The living historian presence at the ceremony was relatively small. Approximately 15,000 were reported to have attended the larger battle reenactment nearby throughout the following weekend, however. Needless to say, the National Park Service did not allow reenactors to run the show as they had done in the dismally farby and ludicrous sham battle in the park in 1961.

"Wait Johnny! I gotta tuck in my t-shirt and fix my sunglasses!"
Manassas 1961. (NPS)

While hanging around the Henry House, I came across my two good friends and colleagues from West Virginia University, Joe Rizzo and Joe Phillips, who both work as seasonal park rangers at the battlefield. They were both doing a great job.

In the yard of the post-war cottage is the grave of Judith Henry – the eighty-five year old widow who was killed as the fighting enveloped her home. As southerners used her home as a lair to strike down the men of James Ricketts’ six gun battery, Ricketts’ was forced to turn his guns on the house and fire into it, not realizing the invalid widow rested inside. Henry had refused the pleas of her son to be removed from the home and this decision cost her her life. At the time, Henry owned a slave servant name Rosa Stokes, who was reportedly wounded by the same artillery shell which killed Henry. The inscription on her grave reads: “Killed near this spot by the explosion of shells in her dwelling during the Battle of the 21st of July, 1861. When killed she was in her 85th year and confined to her bed by the infirmities of age. Her husband Dr. Isaac Henry was a Surgeon in the United States Navy on board the frigate Constellation, Commanded by Com. Truxton, one of the six Captains appointed by Washington in the organization of the Navy, 1794. Our Mother through her long life, thirty five years of which were spent at this place, was greatly loved and esteemed for her kind, gentle and Christian spirit.” It is likely that she was also the half-sister of African American neighbor James Robinson. . .

I was curious, however, as to why there was such a long line of visitors waiting to enter the reconstructed Henry House . . .

Upon my entrance of the structure, I discovered that the United States Postal Service was selling its sesquicentennial stamps of Fort Sumter and Bull Run. After placing them on envelopes, the postal workers used a commemorative rubber stamp to designate the items as mementos of the 150th anniversary of the battle.

While I didn’t see the CNN Express or anything, the presence of the press was quite evident. Dozens of cameras were rolling during the opening ceremonies and they dispersed afterward to mix and mingle with the masses for questioning. Here, a cameraman from C-SPAN interviews a Confederate reenactor about the anniversary. The press, much like common visitors, are more drawn to the showy dramatization of reenactments over exploring the actual battlefields. This is one of many hurdles the NPS is facing over the next four years.

Given the turnout that was anticipated, scores of park rangers from other Civil War battlefields including Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry were present to assist in efforts. In the above photo, esteemed Gettysburg ranger Matt Atkinson converses with a Confederate reenactor about the authenticities of his uniform.

The small tent city for the reenactors included a display of colors entitled “Flags of Manassas.” Strangely enough, no Federal flags were waving in the wind and some of the colors included the St. Andrew’s Cross battle flag, which was not present at First Bull Run. Hmm.

Also present was the Marine Corps Historical Company, which does a multitude of living history presentations, especially in connection with the exploits of the Marines helping to quell the slave rebellion of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Interestingly, the Marines at the ceremony formed the largest contingent of living historians present even though the numbers and actions of the Marines at the battle were quite limited. Being the only Union combatants depicted, a novice visitor might have been led to believe that Marines formed the majority of the Federal ranks in July 1861.

Coinciding with the presence of the Marine Company, its members dedicated a new wayside interpretive marker discussing their actions 150 years previously. It concluded: "...the conduct of the Marines at First Manassas received praise from Union and Confederate soldiers alike." This account differs a bit from others I have read, including this America's Civil War article which notes, "The Marine commandant would later report to the secretary of the navy that it is the first instance recorded in its history where any portion of [the Corps'] members turned their backs to the enemy. Historians would characterize the Marines' performance at Bull Run as a dismal-and atypical-example of battlefield panic." Hmm again.

After watching the Marines perform some drill for the crowds near the Henry House, I decided to take a stroll toward the Stone House by Buck Hill . . . .

Due to the structure’s role as a field hospital in both battles of Bull Run, there was a small field hospital display on the home’s grounds. Both armies had a great deal of difficulty in caring for the wounded after First Manassas. The Union surgeon general prepared little since he anticipated few casualties. Coordination was lacking. The Medical Corps cared for the wounded but the ambulance wagons were operated by the Quartermaster Department. The wagon masters were civilian contractors who quickly fled the danger and thus left wounded behind. Days passed before most of the wounded, many of who were now dead, were recovered. Many were cared for in the U.S. Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery), as well as the capitol rotunda itself.

A July 27, 1861 New York Times article concluded: “We are all inexpressibly pained to learn . . . that very inadequate provisions had been made by the regular authorities, for the proper care of the wounded in the late battle. It seems . . . that some of our gallant soldiers for sheer want of hospital garments, [are] even yet sweltering in their bloody uniforms, with fever and maddened with thirst” (Bollet, Civil War Medicine, 2-3).

Henry P. Matthews, owner of the Stone House, also operated a tavern in the first floor of the structure. In 1865, an unimpressed British correspondent noted, "The house was formerly a tavern, and the man who kept it was one of those two-faced farmers, Secessionists at heart, but always loyal to the winning side. . . . He had managed to get his house through the storm, although in a somewhat dismantled condition. The bar-room was as barren as the intellect of the owner" (NPS brochure on Stone House).

A toll gate and frequently traveled turnpike in front of the home brought many wagoners and travelers into the lower floors of the home to seek food, rest, and most importantly, spirits. As traffic slowed thanks to the railroad, however, the Matthews lived an increasingly agrarian lifestyle. Two major battles in their yards ravaged their home and converted it into a major field hospital twice. Henry and wife Jane owned the home from 1850 to 1865. Though period furniture is scattered here and there throughout the house, visitors have to use their imaginations to visualize what the home's interior may have looked like 150 years ago.

A view looking north toward Buck Hill from the upper floor of the Stone House. Though solidly built, the structure certainly witnessed hard times and suffered much as a result. One combatant noted shortly after the conflict that the house stood with "the windows broken, fences gone, and indentations of balls plainly visible."

But there are other indentations even more compelling than that. Even though I'm skipping ahead to the Battle of Second Manassas, I had never been in the upstairs of the home before and I wasn't about to pass up the fabled initials carved into the floorboards. Private Eugene P. Greer of the 5th New York Infantry was wounded only a short distance away on August 30, 1862 while bearing the brunt of General James Longstreet's assault on Federal positions. Carried to the upstairs of the Stone House, he carved his initials while waiting for care. He did not recover, however, and died exactly one month later at age seventeen.

Charles E. Brehm, also of the 5th New York, was slightly more fortunate. Though grievously wounded, he survived his wounds. Visual reminders such as these simple carvings put a human face on the cost of war like few other in my view. Knowing their chances of survival were not positive, these soldiers were likely determined to leave a mark on something before their time was up - even if it was a slab of wood. For me, it speaks not only to the loss of life but also the loss of innocence and youth.

On my hike back uphill to the Henry House, I came across two rebels. The image proved too striking not to take. Here, I was following in the footsteps of retreating Confederates as they were pushed uphill to the Henry House by the 127th New York. But the tide of battle turned soon afterward.

Eventually, the six gun battery of 10 pounders commanded by Captain James Ricketts was brought forth - but unprotected. Firing into Confederate rifleman at the Henry House, he later noted, "I turned my guns upon the house and literally riddled it" - inadvertently killing the widow Henry in the process (Hankinson First Bull Run 1861). When Ricketts' artillery was overrun, he was also wounded and captured but managed to be exchanged and fought on the same field over a year later. This was largely brought about by the efforts of his devoted wife, Fannie, who cared for him throughout the process.

Park Ranger Jim Burgess delivered a Henry House Hill battlewalk beginning at 2 p.m. What was originally a two hour tour had to be condensed into one hour given the intense heat and non-existent shade. His tour was highly anecdotal, discussing the personalities of Judith Henry, James Ricketts, and multiple others. These characters were placed within the larger tactical situation regarding the battle. At far left was a portable loud speaker so the group could easily hear the tour.

The size of the crowd was substantial but not massive. I would estimate around 400 attendees accompanied Ranger Burgess on his battlewalk - most of whom were likely repeat visitors. Of them, only about six were African American. The Park Service surely has its work cut out in attracting broader audiences of visitors for such programming. Despite the Robinson home site and its family story being prominently featured in the program booklet, few visitors ventured off to find it.

Off we go up the slopes toward the Jackson statue . . .

This steroid rendition of “Stonewall” Jackson was created by Italian sculptor Joseph Pollia and dedicated on August 31, 1940. Rather than being placed in its historically accurate position several dozen yards to the rear, it was placed in a spot deemed more aesthetically pleasing to landscape architects of the time. Real-life Jackson and his horse, Little Sorrell, were needless to say lacking in the physical stature depicted in the memorial. In the tour, Burgess alluded to the fact that General Bernard Bee possibly was being critical of Jackson in calling him “Stonewall” for not offering assistance while Bee’s men were vulnerable at the base of the hill.

In a nearby Youth Tent, kids had a number of activities to choose from. They could make their own commemorative anniversary ribbons to pin to their shirts, learn to use Signal Corps flags, and pick up related mementos. They could also chose to enlist in either the Union or Confederate armies and take the oath of enlistment under the watchful eye of a recruiter like the foot soldier above.

Also included were a number of bulletin boards asking children as well as adults some key questions about the war's causes and legacies. The one pictured above questioned the rightfulness of secession an its legality. Throughout the day, this board became full and answers were mixed. Other questions asked of your own willingness to participate in either cause and also whether justice has been fully granted to all Americans in the 150 years since the war. All good, pertinent questions which allowed for visitor participation and thought provocation.

Naturally, the firing demonstrations following the Henry House Hill tour caught the attention of many spectators present. Standing in rank alongside the Marines was a small company of Confederate Infantry. While it is often easy to be critical of living historians or reenactors, I have to give these guys credit for enduring the extreme temperatures to put on these demonstrations for visitors.

Both sides fired volleys into the open fields beyond. The Marine narrator of the program noted that while muskets and rifles seem old and antiquated to many of us today, very similar weapons are being used today to attack American troops in the Middle East with lethal efficiency. This certainly spoke to the never-ending consequences of war.

So what can we take from all of these ceremonies, demonstrations, and speeches on the 150th anniversary of First Bull Run? I learned that entertainment will always win against enlightenment. Yes, scores of citizens attended the ceremonies, but they paled in comparison with those numbers at the reenactment later that week. The true challenge will be for historians and interpreters to allow common Americans to make connections to a past growing increasingly distant and obscure. Through drawing parallels to modern society, creating empathy, and giving a human face to the people of 1861, the sesquicentennial can indeed be a success if people take the initiative and implement creativity to craft meaningful understandings and bonds to the national past.

In reading Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening, I came across an excerpt that stuck with me: "It is a story of how some people clung to the past, while others sought the future . . .(22)" Though the author speaks of national division in the year 1861, do we not face the same challenge today when looking back on our history? My question is: How can we do both and still succeed? I suppose we shall answer that question in four years.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this and posting your pictures. I was very sorry to miss this event, but reading your post makes me feel like I was there.

  2. Thanks Becka! I appreciate your kind words!

  3. I did not got to the battlefield until Friday afternoon at 2PM as they were closing up due to the heat. Your post and many photographs fills in many of the details for me. Thanks! Lots of food for thought here on how the NPS will adjust for Antietam and other 150th events next year.

    Best Regards