July 21, 1861, marked the first major clash between Union and Confederate forces just north of Manassas, as both sides realized the tactical importance of the area.
The prized Manassas Junction, now Old Town, was the important intersection of both the Alexandria and the Manassas Gap railroads, and control of the rails would also control troops and supplies.
After Confederate forces fight defensively for most of the morning, fresh troops arrive from the Shenandoah Valley, and a rally breaks the Union right flank. Union soldiers are thrown into chaos, quickly retreating back toward Washington. The frantic retreat ran headlong into hundreds of civilians who had brought picnic lunches to “watch the battle” and they, too, fled for their lives.
Visitors from across the region turned out in large numbers July 17 at Manassas National Battlefield Park for the 160th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run. The National Park Service was ready with a day filled with interpretive talks, recounting each major battle that fateful day.
More than 50 turned up at the historic Stone Bridge early in the morning to join Park Ranger Henry Elliott, who provided a guided tour of the battle site, painting a picture of military mistakes made and the realization that day by Union forces that victory would not be as swift as hoped.
Neil Burke, from Fairfax, portrayed a soldier of Company K, 3rd U.S. Regular Infantry, a professional military unit of the day. Burke noted that in 1861, the military was not seen as a prestigious occupation.
“The company’s most important action that day was fighting the rear guard, after Union lines had broken, and were retreating to D.C., to prevent the Confederate cavalry – and especially the artillery – from mopping up the union troops,” Burke said.
The United States Christian Commission was the first large-scale service organization birthed on the battleground as a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association, there to provide comfort and morale with a coffee wagon. They also had bandages and would help wounded troops, and earned the nickname, “angels of the battlefield.”
The National Park Service also dedicated two recently-acquired original cannons, known as “boat howitzers.” These howitzers are a rare type of naval cannon that the U.S. Navy loaned to the 71st New York State Militia and which they deployed on Matthews Hill.
There were also talks at the Henry Hill Visitor Center Theater for lectures on how the First Battle of Manassas was remembered by the veterans who fought there, and continued efforts to preserve the battlefield itself.