Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Autumn is my favorite time of year, and October is for me the best month. Regular readers of this blog are undoubtedly heartily sick of reading those words, but repetition doesn't make them less true.
Today was a gorgeous picture-perfect early fall day. The sun, after a solid week of clouds, wind, and rain made a return appearance and brought with it a soul-satisfying 70 degrees. My wife and I had intended to hike together, but a last-minute obligation kept her otherwise occupied. She asked me to stay fairly close, so I made the short trip down the road to the Manassas Battlefield National Park. The park contains some 5,000 unsullied acres preserving the sites of the first two major Civil War Battles in 1861 and 1862. There are two trails, one of them a 5.5 mile loop on the east side of Sudley Road, and the other a 6.5 mile loop on the other side. The character of the topography has been preserved, and where there were woods and fields in 1861/1862, woods and fields remain today, one of the best preserved of the battlefields from that war. The two trails are loops, and if I had to return home early, there was the ability to cut cross-country back to the parking lot.
I arrived mid-morning, and the air which had been distinctly chilly had begun to warm nicely. The sun's angle was notably lower in the sky, even as noontime approached and those low slanting rays gave the light that distinctive autumn feel. The grass had begun to acquire that tawny look that so characterizes this time of year and while the leaves are still largely green, there were isolated patches of color to catch the eye.
After paying the $3 fee at the Visitor's Center (my annual NPS pass having expired) I headed back behind the statue where General Jackson stands like a...bronze statue and headed into the woods. The trail here varies from dirt and rocks to wider pea gravel-covered paths to accommodate the Park's vehicles and equipment. Either way, the walking is easy. The birds, after a week of bad weather, were in good voice and filled the forest with their songs. Wildlife was active as well, a few white tail deer, tons of squirrels, and a couple of foxes.
At one point, the trail split, one side going to the Stone Bridge, the other heading towards a place called "Portici." Curious, I headed that way.
Portici was the name for a plantation owned by the Lewis family. Described as a "middling" plantation, it covered about 770 acres. During the first battle, it was the headquarters for Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. After the fighting ended, it became a Confederate hospital. It was here that a very nervous Jefferson Davis, riding from Richmond, met a victorious Stonewall Jackson, who proclaimed, "They're running like dogs! Give me 10,000 men and I'll go to Washington!" Today, looking at the homesite, it is easy to see why the Lewis' picked this spot for their house. It set upon one of the higher hills in the area and thus had a commanding view of the area.
Now, one can see how the modern world has closed in around the battlefield. To the south, I could see traffic passing on a busy I-66 and through the thinning trees, modern commercial buildings that make up the northern part of Manassas are visible. Still, it is good to see that the battlefield itself remains inviolate, jealously guarded by people who are committed to keeping our history alive, and not buried under asphalt.
I headed back north, passing the split and making for the Stone Bridge, one of the critical places of the first battle. But as I got to the point where the trail turned sharply towards the bridge, I got a text indicating that my presence was required at home. I pulled out the map, got my bearings, and left the trail, heading southwest. I cut across a couple of fields, thankfully freshly mowed as the NPS has been harvesting hay. I crossed Young's Branch, a small stream, and carefully crossed US29. Here, I got into a field of neck-high grass. I used my trekking poles to help push through, being thankful that tick season was at an end. After ascending the back side of Henry House Hill, I caught sight of Jackson's statue, eventually returning to the parking lot.
It was a perfect day, even though the hike was cut short. Still, I managed just under 4.5 miles on day of absolute perfection.