I have been thinking about whether to write a blog post for Monday and another for Tuesday, or whether to combine them into one. That’s because the last two days have sort of had the same theme. Ultimately, I have decided to follow the one day per post rule, so what you are reading now is Monday’s goings-on. Or since it is in the past, does that mean it is Monday’s went-on? Whatever…
The theme for the time being is Civil War. I am very interested in certain aspects of history, particularly WWII and the American Civil War. But I really don’t know a lot of facts, nor do I understand many of the key pieces of information I would have learned had I taken a Civil War course. Whenever I read about it, I am overwhelmed by information. But I want to learn! Maybe there will be a Civil War course on Coursera (online learning).
Last night after I left DC, I drove to Manassas. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is the location of two Civil War Battles. If you’re familiar with the term “Bull Run,” that relates to these battles. Bull Run is a seasonal river located nearby. The Union Army crossed over it on July 21, 1861 to begin the first major land battle of the Civil War. It was supposed to be a quick victory, sending the Confederacy into disarray and ending the “rebellion” that would be the Civil War. But the Union fled in unexpected defeat at the hands of the Confederacy, after Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson stood “like a stone wall” amidst Union musket and cannon fine. That’s paraphrasing of course. The battle wasn’t that simple.
The second battle in Manassas was fought August 28-30, 1862 and resulted in another Confederate victory. This was a much larger battle than the first one, and was almost as disastrous for the Union.
Now, the Battlefields are located in a rural area with very few homes nearby (unlike Gettysburg). I first checked into the Visitor Center and paid a $3 fee. There is a movie, a small museum, free guided tours, and self-tours as well. Because of the nature of the battles, there is a walking tour for First Manassas and a driving tour for Second Manassas. The walking tour is fairly compact and goes through some rolling hills, through the woods, and there is a home which existed when the battle took place. The 80+ year old woman who lived there was killed in the battles – the only civilian casualty.
The Second Manassas tour begins a mile or two down the road. It went by various significant locations, each with its own small parking lot, so that one can get out, read the informational signs, and explore. I was surprised with the amount of fighting that took place on private farmland. But I guess, when it’s time to fight, you don’t get to choose another location. I am fascinated by walking on the actual ground where these soldiers stood, learning exactly where a group of soldiers hid, or gathered, or slept. There are so many information signs that you can see exactly where one troop stood and picture exactly where their enemy was standing. Extremely detailed records were kept of the Civil War – town to exact times and precise locations. So you know (exactly) where something happened. One thing that a battlefield visit gives, that a textbook or movie doesn’t, is to actually see the size of the battlefield. To understand that battles were happening, sometimes, simultaneously, in multiple locations (flanks) – sometimes a mile or more apart. Especially in movies, you get the impression that everyone is camped out the night before the battle, and they charge on one location first thing in the morning. But you see it in person and you learn that one side was caught off guard and not planning for a battle, or one side’s troops weren’t all there yet and some arrived late, and that during the hours of fighting, messages were sent back to the commander who decided to concede certain areas and move those troops to help another brigade. Just fascinating stuff that can only be appreciated when you are standing there. They also sometimes have display boards showing dead bodies, and you can see by matching up the landmarks that you are standing in the exact same location.
After this, I drove to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia – less than an hour away. Harpers Ferry lies on a strategic location right at the junction where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers join. It’s like a “Y” shape: with WV, VA, and MD separated by the waters. The city is very, very small—only about half a square mile. However, it is important in the history of the US. On a visit in 1783, Thomas Jefferson called the view from there, “One of the most stupendous scenes in nature” and “worthy of a trip across the Atlantic” just to experience it. In 1794,Harpers Ferry became the location of the United States Armory and Arsenal. In the mid 1850s, a mix of slaves and “Free Blacks” lived and co-mingled, along with the White population. In 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21, including some slaves and some free blacks, on a raid on the arsenal. He intended to steal weapons and incite a slave uprising. Ultimately, Marines were sent in to end the siege and Brown was hanged for treason, but it acted as a catalyst for the Civil War.
The city is quite unique. Most of it is owned by the National Park Service but there are many private residences and shops. It was a fun place to visit. It kind of gives you the feeling of walking down Main Street at Disneyland, in that it looks like a staged, fake city. However, it’s not fake. When you walk into the building that says “Shoemaker,” you are transported back to what a shoemaker’s store would have looked like. One building discusses the archeology of home construction – examining foundations, door frames, etc. to get ideas about how the city changed. Some doors open to museum exhibits, with recorded testimonials from slaves and slave owners, John Brown’s Fort is still there, ruins of a pulp mill exist by the river, and a picturesque church, ruins of another church, and a graveyard are atop the hill. This city was built into the side of a slate hillside. In fact, there is a stairway going all the way up the hill from ground level to the church. It was hard-carved out of the solid slate! And it reminded me of San Francisco…or China’s agriculture – very terraced. As you walk up the steps, you see doorways to peoples’ homes which are built on top of others homes. Partway up the steps, there is a lane to the right which leads to more homes. They built up the hill with the space they had. It’s a really unique and special place. Basically, the entire city is a living museum.
Harpers Ferry is also special because it is one of the few cities that the Appalachian Trail goes directly through. I saw several people on their treks, and walked a bit of it myself! Yeah.
After this day of historical sites had come to an end, I made the 20-30 minute drive to Martinsburg, WV, where I am staying in a hotel for the night. Intense thunder, lightning, and rain are accompanying me.