I had a vague idea before my trip to Manassas why this town holds an important place in American history. I knew it was the site of the first major land battle of the Civil War, when the people realized for the first time that a nasty war was ahead. I remember reading somewhere that the fashionable set from Washington DC came out for the day to to watch the battle for entertainment.
My first stop was to the city of Manassas, about 25 miles west of Washington, DC right of I-66. Like many of these historic mid-Atlantic towns that were populated during the 1800s, the old historic district of Manassas is compact, has a nice street grid with a few stop lights, and a bunch of restaurants, bars, antique shops, occupying renovated buildings. And of course the town is basically surrounded by more modern highways lined with fast food joints, mini malls, and mini marts.
I stopped for lunch with Ollie and had a great burger at a place called Foster’s Grille, right next to the 100-year old Manassas train station. I also went to a little outdoor farmers market in a parking lot nearby and picked up a few apples before I was told that dogs weren’t allowed. I thought it was a little ridiculous to ban dogs in an outdoor parking lot just because there’s some vegetables out on some tables, especially when there was no sign saying “No Dogs Allowed”. So for you dog owners, stay away from this little market. I guess they don’t want your money.
Manassas National Battlefield Memorial Park
After getting lunch and walking around the town a little bit taking some pictures, I drove the 10 minutes or so to the Civil War battlefield of First Bull Run, or First Manassas, if you’re a Southerner. Visiting this battlefield is a cinch. There’s no parking fee, no admission fee, nothing. (Oh wait, as I write this blog post, my internet research shows that there was an admission fee. Oops! I owe the NPS $3). I guess I was supposed to go inside the visitors center and pay before walking out onto the fields.
What happened here back in 1861? A few months after the attack on Fort Sumter, SC, the North was clamoring for a fight. Confederate forces under PT Beuaregard were camped out only 30 miles from the capital, at Manassas Junction. Yielding to pressure from impatient politicians, the Union Army’s General Thomas McDowell moved to attack the Confederates. Initially successful, the Union Forces were eventually beaten back after the arrival of reinforcements from the Shenandoah Valley, led by the then-unknown general named Thomas Jackson, a Virginia Military Institute administrator at the time. Jackson’s brigade successfully counterattacked, earning him the nickname “Stonewall” Jackson. The Union Army was routed, with some soldiers abandoning their weapons and walking back to DC. This was the first Bull-Run. The second Bull Run took place the next year and was ten-times as bloody in terms of the number of KIAs.
There are over 40 miles of trails in this park, but I chose the one-mile Henry Hill Loop Trail for its convenience. The early November fall foliage accentuated the green grass of the battlefield, and the crisp fall air put a little chill on my skin as I walked down the trail across the open fields. The site is beautiful, although a little unremarkable at first save for the wood Civil-War type defensive barrier fencing and cannon dotting the battlefield. If you took those away, and maybe removed the Henry Hill House and the Stone House, the battlefield basically looks an unremarkable farm. But as I stepped along the pathways up and down the gently rolling hills, it was hard to fathom that thousands of Americans died on these fields.
I think this is the closest Civil War battlefield to Washington, DC. It’s definitely worth a visit for those interested in American history or those just looking for a nice day outside in the Sun. The park is dog-friendly and there are tons of hiking trails to fit your needs.
- Manassas, historic district: Foster’s Grille: right next to the Manassas train station, this burger joint served up a really good cheeseburger and fries ( and soda) for $10. I liked that the restaurant didn’t really look like a restaurant, but a bar. It has one long bar in the main part of the restaurant and a few different rooms in the back with tables. Has a good selection of craft beers on tap. I ate at a table outside since I had my dog.
- Map of Hiking Trails
- Get there early as the parking lot was nearly full even on a cold November afternoon
- Be prepared for a lot of traffic around the Manassas area; every road was jam packed with cars on a Saturday afternoon
- Dogs are allowed on the grounds as long as they’re leashed.