Manassas Musings

By Val Merlina ’14

Individuals from around the world travel to the region punctuated by suburban sprawl nestled between Dulles Airport and Washington, D.C. They weave their way through the abundant traffic to reach a piece of ground that somehow managed to remain preserved. While some seek knowledge, or a way to entertain their children for the afternoon, others come merely to stand in the places where great armies and famous commanders stood 152 years ago. This is the essence of Manassas National Battlefield Park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith a small, capable, and close-knit staff, Manassas plays host to historic structures, cemeteries and monuments, offering guided walking tours and visitor information to those who seek it. My role at Manassas follows the needs of the park: the main duties of an intern here include working at the visitor information desk, leading walking tours on Henry Hill, and operating the historic Stone House building.

Interpretation at Manassas is unlike many other Civil War sites. Along with the typical discussions of armies, commanders, civilians, and the aftermath, this site has not just one, but two battles to interpret, ones that occurred only thirteen months apart. Not to mention the fact that the battles have different names depending upon the visitor’s preference. It is not uncommon to have guests wondering whether or not Bull Run and Manassas refer to the same engagement, solely on the geographical viewpoint from which they received their initial Civil War education.

As an intern, I spend a lot of time researching the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas and giving the walking tour of the Henry Hill. Henry Hill is the best spot to interpret the first battle because of the commanding view from atop the hill. From there, both Union and Confederate infantry positions, as well as the corresponding artillery positions are visible. Also pertinent is the presence of the reconstructed Henry House, which stands near to where the foundation of the original structure stood. The original house witnessed the mortal wounding of 85 year old widow, Mrs. Judith C. Henry. Her death marked not only the first known civilian casualty of the war, but it is also symbolic of a national ‘loss of innocence’ that began with the bloodshed at Bull Run.

On the Henry Hill stands the iconic Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson monument. The larger-than-life depiction of Jackson leaves visitors in awe and many a Jackson-admirer speechless. Though it isn’t just the Jackson monument, which stands watchingly in rain or shine – well, like a “stonewall” – that warrants attention from visitors, but also the sturdy Stone House just at the base of the hill.

The Stone House is one of my favorite locations in the park. Duty there is a chance to provide some informal interpretation. Though visitation there can sometimes be low, to have the chance to work in the historic structure is well worth it. The building itself is original and refurnished to its former use as a tavern along the Warrenton Turnpike (modern Route 29) where it was a wagoners’ stop. During the war, though, the nature of the tavern changed dramatically. Located between the firing lines for both battles, the Stone House found new use as an aid station. Wounded soldiers received some basic care there and then either returned to their regiments or were paroled.

When I open the Stone House in the morning, raise the red aid station flag from a second story window, it isn’t the story of the tavern I’m yearning to pass along. It is the story of two men from the 5th New York regiment (Duryee’s Zouaves). The 5th NY, donning bright red bottoms, white gator leg wrappings, a blue coat, and a red fez-like cap, was distinctive on the battlefield. They soon became known as effective soldiers, and were self-proclaimed “red legged devils.”
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Their bright uniform design worked also to make them targets to enemy marksmen, especially here during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Both Eugene P. Geer, 17, and Charles Brehm, 21, were wounded during the fighting. They were taken to the Stone House to recover and to be paroled. What is remarkable about their story, however, was that both of these soldiers also left something behind for us to remember them by – their names. Geer and Brehm both carved their names into the wood of a small upstairs bedroom that had been used to house the wounded and dying. The tangibility of these engravings allows for a connection to be drawn not only to Civil War history, but to two specific men, whose names we can read plainly in the wood. How their stories end, however, I will leave for you to find out during your own visit to Manassas.

It is a great honor to have the opportunity to work at a site like Manassas. The rich history of the region, the interest in the American Civil War, and the absolutely stunning natural landscape truly draws me to this place. There is a certain charm to the park itself, being an oasis in the center of development. The forests, clear of undergrowth, and vividly colored after a rain, add yet another element of contentedness to temporarily calling this place home for the summer. The battlefield and its preserved lands especially are a treasure of northern Virginia. I am honored to have the chance to help to advance the great name of this park, and the National Park Service through this internship. It is with pride that I relay the name of Gettysburg College, and the opportunities cultivated through the Civil War Institute and its staff. What’s more, it is humbling to be included for a second summer in the Brian C. Pohanka Fellowship, where a dedication to educating the American public has blossomed into a truly wonderful experience.

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