Part of our weekend plans included a trip to watch the reenactment of the Battle of First Manassas, as part of the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial (such a fun word to say and such a hard word to spell). Yes, it was HOT—100 plus degrees—and yes, it was crowded: the battle reenactment involved roughly 8500 reenactors dressed in full Civil War garb and roughly 10,000 spectators. Yes, there were a lot of lines and a lot of waiting around. Yes, four dollars for an iced tea was expensive.
Though the town of Manassas is about sixty minutes from where we live (with traffic), and is considered part of the DC metro area, to be immersed in the Civil War milieu felt like being plunked into a different world. This was essentially the first major battle of the war; both sides—generals, soldiers, politicians, citizens—were certain they were going to win quickly and be done with it. People from Washington drove out in carriages to watch. But this was the battle that sobered everyone up, giving a glimpse of what lay ahead: thousands wounded and dead, nothing easy about any of it.
After we watched the two hour reenactment—Regimental flags! Cannons! Horses! Musket fire! Men marching around in organized chaos!—we went over to the actual grounds of the battlefield, a park run by the National Park Service. While having the images of the reenactment in my head were helpful as I tried to imagine what happened on this terrible day150 years ago, what always moves me the most about any Civil War battlefield that I’ve visited is the simple beauty of the rolling hills, the fringe of trees, the expanse of grass, the drone of the cicadas, the hawks circling above, a vibrant yellow butterfly. The scene is so peaceful; those fields always seem so peaceful. How could anything terrible happen here?
You can learn more about the battles (there was another, even bloodier, battle on the same site a year later) here: http://www.nps.gov/mana/historyculture/index.htm