Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Today my wishes lost out to various demands, and as a result, I spent a good portion of the day engaged in those duties to which adults are required to perform. My intent was to head west to the AT segment near Ashby's Gap, but as I didn't get freed up until nearly 1:30, I decided to keep it local.
The Civil War Battle fought only 20 minutes from my home is known by two different names. In the South, it was known as the first and second Battle(s) of Bull Run, referring to the stream which bisects the site. The Union referred to it as Manassas, named for the town a few miles to the south. Today, the battlefield is a well-preserved 4,500-acres of fields, forests, and streams. There are also hiking trails.
The two major trails cover each side of Virginia Route 234, AKA Sudley Road. The trail on the east side of that road, the side with the visitors center, is 5.5 miles. The one on the west side of the road is 6.5 miles. The trails are mostly easy, although there are a few steep hills to climb. It is a picturesque place, mostly quiet except for wildlife and the well-muted sound of traffic from VA 234 and US 29. It is a lovely place in the springtime, when the new growth is all greened up, especially so on a clear, sunny day.
Today was notable in that it was a really warm day, the temperatures reaching into the 90's for the first time this year. I prepped accordingly, filling the Camelbak with ice and water, and applying liberal amounts of sunscreen.
I checked in at the Visitors Center, picking up one of the new trail maps. I headed east towards the treeline, passing a row of cannons. It was a summer-like day, the heat already making itself noticed. That smell of the warm grasses filled my senses as I walked along. Once passed the cannons, the trail turned right and entered the forest. The air was still warm, but in the shade more bearable. Knowing the water had to last, I took sips sparingly. As I walked, I passed several markers, designating the location of key events. The problem is that two separate battles were fought here, and with the little amount of study I've applied to these two pieces of history, it was difficult to keep events straight.
The first battle began on July 21, 1861, in this location only one day's march from Washington. Both sides were, for once, equally strong, about 18,000 men each, but numbers were negated by the fact that these were overwhelmingly green troops, with equally inexperienced officers. During the battle, the main task became keeping these gun-shy troops on their assigned lines. People in the north were clamoring for a quick victory, by marching on and taking the CSA capital of Richmond, Virginia. The Union Commanding General Irvin McDowell tried to buy additional time for training, to no avail. He was ordered into action.
Facing McDowell were equally green troops under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard. McDowell's first attempt was an ambitious, complex, and wholly unrealistic (given the state of his army) plan to aggressively attack the flank of Beauregard's forces. An urgent message for Southern reinforcements was issued and General Joseph E. Johnston out in the Shenandoah Valley, put his troops on trains and moved them swiftly to the scene of the battle, the first time this had ever been done. The battle opened with a spirited fight around the vital Stone Bridge over Bull Run Creek.
The Union forces made good progress, at one point some 15,000 of them facing a Southern regiment of only 1,100. Despite the disparity in numbers, they Union advance was slowed enough to allow time for a little-known Virginian named Thomas Jackson to arrive on Henry House Hill (site of the present-day Visitors Center), where the met the disorganized Southerners as the fell back. General Bernard Bee here shouted the immortal words, "There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer! Rally behind the Virginians!" Historians believe that Bee's proclamation may not have been so much a rallying cry as a derisive commentary on Jackson's failure to immediately come to his aid. The truth of his intent died along with him shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the incident bequeathed upon the former VMI professor the most famous nickname and reputation of the Civil War, and perhaps, US military history.
Where he once stood like a stone wall, General Jackson now stands in bronze.
The Stone Bridge
Troops of the 33rd Virginia, wearing blue uniforms, confused a Union artillery battery, not realizing that these were the enemy until too late. The capture of these guns turned the tide of the battle. That, plus the strong stand by Jackson's soldiers, brought victory to the Confederates out of what was shaping up to be a terrible defeat. McDowell fell back towards Washington, the road clogged not only by retreating soldiers but a large number of civilians who had come out to picnic while the battle was being fought. Beauregard failed to press his advantage, mainly because after the battle, his troops were every bit as chaotically confused as his foe's. Still, it was a stunning victory.
13 months later, over August 28-30, 1862, this crossroads was once again the site of a major battle. The armies were much larger, 62,000 bluecoats against 50,000 in gray. The Union was led by General John Pope, the Confederates by the soon-to-be legendary Robert E. Lee. Pope's mission was essentially defensive. Keep Lee away from Washington and protect Union possession of the rich agricultural treasure of the Shenandoah Valley. Stonewall Jackson led his troops on a wide-ranging flanking march, taking position on Stony Ridge, just west of present-day VA 234. Pope, seeing what he thought was an opportunity, turned his entire force on the dug-in Confederates. While this was going on, General James Longstreet broke through light resistance (mainly John Buford's cavalry) at Thoroughfare Gap, and closed on the battlefield, taking position on the Union left flank. When Pope was fully engaged (not even sending a scouting party out to ensure the safety of his flanks), Longstreet launched a devastating attack that rolled up Pope's flank and sent the Union army fleeing towards Centreville. While not the devastating loss of a year earlier, it was nonetheless another significant victory for the South, demonstrating General Lee's willingness to divide his outnumbered army to achieve tactical advantage, something he would demonstrate again at Chancellorsville.
Young's Run, a tributary of Bull Run Creek
Unlike last week's trek on the AT, today I had company, as I saw several people, and groups out on the trail. I saw a couple of runners, something I tried once, getting lost in the process. I could have taken the trail that goes along the unfinished railroad cut along Stony Ridge, the site of Jackson's line in the second battle, but I had already gone nearly four miles, and the heat was becoming an issue. So I turned back north, cresting two good-size humpbacks, crossing US 29 between, ending up back at the Visitor's Center. According to the "Map My Run" app on my phone, I had gone 5.67 miles. It was in the low 90's by now, and I figured I had gone far enough. Plus, I had sucked the last drops out of my Camelbak as I approached the parking lot.
I enjoy hiking this battlefield, despite my historical confusion. The trails are well-marked and easy enough to follow, providing you can read a map when you encounter an intersection.
Next week, we're out of town, going to Vegas. It's going to be really hot out there, into the triple digits, so I will likely restrain my exercise to early morning jogs. I still plan to return to the AT, but after I've acclimated myself to the heat. And purchased a larger Camelbak.