Virginia: Manassas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This park commemorates two important Civil War battles fought at different times in the same location. The 1861 First Battle of Manassas (also called First Bull Run) was the Civil War’s first major engagement. The 1862 Second Battle of Manassas (or Second Bull Run) was a Southern victory and a springboard for Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s Maryland campaign.

Site Office

Manassas National Battlefield Park

12521 Lee Highway

Manassas, VA 22110

ph.: (703) 361-1339

fax: (703) 754-1861

Web site: www.nps.gov/mana/

Neither battle at Manassas was a decisive encounter, but each was significant. The First Battle of Manassas was the Civil War’s first major battle and a hard-fought Confederate victory. Its intensity and outcome portended the upcoming long, hard war. It was also where the legendary Confederate general Thomas Jackson became “Stonewall” Jackson. The Second Battle of Manassas completed one of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s greatest tactical successes, while subordinates such as Stonewall Jackson and General James Longstreet performed brilliantly. It spurred Lee to undertake one of his two wartime campaigns outside Southern territory.

The Manassas National Battlefield Park has weathered controversies that make its existence seem as tumultuous as the battles it consecrates. Many years passed before the U.S. government recognized the battlefield’s historical worth and created a park. After World War II, Washington, D.C.’s exploding suburban growth into northeastern Virginia sparked debates over use of neighboring land–and also over the larger issues of preserving and respecting historic places.

First Battle of Manassas

As the Civil War began in 1861, Manassas town did not yet exist, but two strategically important railroads met at a place called Manassas Junction. One went west to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” The other proceeded south toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. In June, 1861, the Confederates resolved to hold the junction against an expected Union attack or, if the opportunity arose, to advance from it against the Union capital in Washington, D.C.

The Union moved first. The general commanding the Union army in northeastern Virginia, Irvin McDowell, knew that his mostly volunteer force was not combat ready, but both the Union government and the general public wanted quick military action. Further, the volunteers’ ninety-day enlistments faced imminent expiration. The Southern forces gathering at Manassas were an obvious objective, and McDowell’s army marched against them on July 16, 1861.

McDowell also acted because the Confederate forces were then split between those at Manassas under General Pierre G. T. Beauregard and those farther west, near Harpers Ferry, under General Joseph E. Johnston. If McDowell and the Union general opposing Johnston, Robert Patterson, moved in concert, they might defeat the Rebels decisively. However, Patterson did not act, and when Beauregard detected McDowell’s advance, Johnston began transferring reinforcements via the western rail line.

By July 20, 1861, the two armies obliquely faced each other across a creek which gave the upcoming battle another name, Bull Run. Beauregard expected a Union move toward the actual railroad junction and concentrated most of his army of twenty thousand near that spot for his own planned advance. McDowell’s twenty-nine thousand troops moved along Warrenton Turnpike, north of the railroad, and massed along the stream north of the main Rebel lines. McDowell planned to feint against the northern end of the Rebel forces at the Warrenton Turnpike’s stone bridge across Bull Run, swing a large force north and west along that creek, and then move it south across the creek behind Beauregard’s left flank.

McDowell’s plan exceeded the abilities of his untrained force, which could not execute it quickly enough. The flanking units commenced marching at 2:00 a.m. on July 21 but did not cross Bull Run at Sudley Springs ford until well after daybreak. Meanwhile, alert Rebels detected the Union move, and Colonel Nathan Evans’s small force moved north against it. Other Rebel units under General Bernard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow joined Evans as the Yankees advanced southward amid hard fighting to a small ridge called Matthews Hill.

The Union assault pushed the Rebels a mile farther south and up another eminence called Henry House Hill. Beauregard and Johnston (now present on the field) frantically transferred their forces from previous positions and from arriving trains to stop the Yankees. Brigadier General Thomas Jackson commanded one of the reinforcing brigades, and both he and his men remained steady as the Rebel line wavered under Union pressure all along the hill’s crest. Nearly all accounts recall that General Bee steadied his faltering unit by calling, just before he was fatally wounded, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!”

The battle climaxed on Henry House Hill as the lines seesawed through the afternoon. More Union forces arrived to press the Rebels, including two artillery batteries which applied extra force against the Rebel left flank’s far end. However, train-borne Rebel reserves in turn flanked the Union assault from the west, forcing a Union retreat in the late afternoon.

Lack of training produced confusion among commanders and soldiers on both sides, and this factor also adversely affected the Yankees’ retreat. Their withdrawal rapidly became disorderly, and when Confederate shelling created a traffic snarl at a stone bridge, the retreat became a panicky rout. For their part, the Rebels were too disorganized to exploit the victory, and Union forces reconstituted themselves behind Washington’s defenses.

The First Manassas Union and Confederate casualty totals were 2,700 and 2,000, respectively. The battle buoyed Southern morale and showed an overconfident North that the Rebels were in earnest. It highlighted Union troop unreadiness, and before 1861 ended, General George McClellan relieved McDowell and started an intense training regimen. Many officers who became famous Civil War leaders fought in the battle. Among these were the Union’s William Tecumseh Sherman and Ambrose Burnside, and the Confederacy’s James Longstreet and Jeb Stuart. Most prominent was the South’s Thomas Jackson, whose steadiness on Henry House Hill earned him the nickname “Stonewall” and marked his potential for greater feats.

Second Battle of Manassas

McClellan’s spring 1862 advance up the James Peninsula toward Richmond foundered upon his own caution and the brilliance of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s new leader, General Robert E. Lee. In response, the Union created a new army of seventy thousand troops, led by General John Pope, to push toward Richmond from Washington. In August, 1862, the Union government also directed General McClellan to transfer his forces to support Pope.

Aware of these developments, Lee did not rest in his defenses outside Richmond. In July, he sent Stonewall Jackson’s corps against Pope. On August 9, Jackson halted Pope’s advance units at Cedar Mountain. Since both McClellan and Pope moved very slowly, Lee transferred most of his Army north in mid-August to strike Pope before McClellan fully reinforced him. Attempts to trap and destroy Pope’s Army between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers having failed, Lee split his task force of fifty-five thousand by sending Jackson’s corps on a fast march far around Pope’s right flank to the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction.

Jackson’s force seized the junction and its supplies on August 27. Jackson then organized a hidden defensive line on an unfinished railroad about a mile northwest of Henry House Hill on the old Manassas battlefield. As Pope sent forces to find him, he ambushed some of them in a hard but inconclusive fight on August 28. Now knowing Jackson’s position, Pope moved to crush him.

However, Pope did not concentrate his attack, and he also ignored the rest of Lee’s army. As Union forces unsuccessfully charged Jackson’s line in furious but uncoordinated assaults on July 29, Lee’s other corps under General James Longstreet moved up against Pope’s left flank south of the unfinished rail line. Disregarding evidence of this buildup, Pope attacked Jackson again on August 30. As this assault wavered in the afternoon, Lee ordered Longstreet to strike.

Longstreet’s attack crumpled the Yankees’ left flank and forced Pope’s precipitate withdrawal. Hastily assembled Union forces delayed the Confederates long enough at Chinn Ridge and Henry House Hill to prevent a rout and allow the rest of the Union army to escape to good defensive positions east of Bull Run. Confederate attempts on July 31 to exploit the victory failed due to bad logistics, exhausted troops, nasty weather, and McClellan’s reinforcements. Both sides’ battle losses were high, though the Rebels suffered about half as many casualties as the Union’s sixteen thousand.

Lee decided to further his success by invading Maryland and hopefully fomenting an uprising by local sympathizers. Also, Lee wanted his army to leave war-ravaged northern Virginia and perhaps inspire foreign support by winning battles in Union territory. General Pope was relieved of command, and McClellan took command of the forces pursuing Lee. President Abraham Lincoln delayed announcing his Emancipation Proclamation until Union battlefield fortunes improved. This occurred with the September 17, 1862, battle fought at Sharpsburg (Antietam Creek), Maryland.

The Battlefield Park

From months after the first battle through later years, private groups erected monuments on spots commemorating various actions and sacrifices. Hugh Henry, owner of the house that gave the embattled hill its name, used his residence as an informal museum through the early 1900’s. During the same time, the U.S. government considered Manassas as a potential park site, but budget constraints and lack of sustained interest prevented fruition of the plan. Meanwhile, interested locals tried to create a Manassas Battlefield Confederate Park in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal changed the site’s fortunes. The government created a Recreational Demonstration Area at the site for families. This bureaucratic move helped secure the funding, developmental effort, and interest to create a national battlefield park in 1940.

As Washington, D.C.’s suburbs spread into northeast Virginia after World War II, the park encountered several controversies involving land use on or near its property. There was a 1950’s plan to route Interstate Highway 66 through it. The 1970’s featured attempts to locate a national military cemetery on it and to build an amusement theme park nearby. The 1980’s witnessed moves to enlarge its patrol horse stables and to create an adjoining shopping mall complex. Perhaps most famous was Disney Corporation’s early 1990’s plan to build a theme park near the site.

Opponents of these measures defeated all of them. Altering the park or its surroundings pitted those who prized the battlefield’s significance against those concerned with the local area’s economic welfare. Also, the shopping mall and both amusement park actions sparked national debate over heritage preservation versus urban development. Thus, these initiatives often created powerful antidevelopment coalitions of citizens’ groups, Civil War enthusiasts, U.S. representatives, news reporters, and even National Park Service staff, which overwhelmed their opponents. Indeed, the shopping mall enterprise and 1970’s amusement park plan led the government to expand the park boundaries.

What to See

The preservation efforts have yielded rewards. The visitors’ center resides on the hotly contested Henry House Hill, and from there one sees relatively few signs of modern urban life. Open daily except Christmas, the visitors’ center has a museum as well as guide material for touring the battlefield. Battlefield landmarks can be reached by car or walking trail, and historical markers support understanding of them. Sudley Springs ford is on the park’s north boundary, and the Bull Run stone bridge is on the park’s eastern edge. The unfinished railroad is still visible on the park’s west side. The scene of Longstreet’s flanking assault underlies both the original park territory and land acquired in the shopping mall and amusement park debates.

Outside the park are Washington, D.C.’s obvious attractions. The Blue Ridge mountains are thirty miles west. Other Civil War National Battlefield Parks such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania are each within a day’s travel.

For Further Information
  • Davis, William. Battle at Bull Run. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. Examines the First Battle of Manassas and preceding actions.
  • Hanson, Joseph Mills. Bull Run Remembers. Manassas, Va.: Prince William County Historical Commission, 1957. Author’s essays about the area’s Civil War events and people.
  • Hennessy, John. The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence. Lynchburg, Va.: H. E. Howard, 1989. Former Manassas National Battlefield Park historian focuses upon the battle itself and makes extensive use of primary sources.
  • _______. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. New York: Touchstone, 1993. Focuses more upon the second battle than the campaign. Again, the former park historian makes heavy use of primary sources.
  • Martin, David. Second Bull Run Campaign. Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Books, 1997. Overall account of the campaign and battle.
  • Naisawald, L. Van Loan. Manassas Junction and the Doctor. Manassas, Va.: Lake Lithograph, 1981. Covers the area’s overall history.
  • Zenzen, Joan. Battling for Manassas. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. Comprehensive, well-documented history of the park and its controversies up through the Disney theme park debate.
Categories: History Content