A visit to Manassas: enlightening, sobering

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MANASSAS, Va. -- This area of Northern Virginia bore the brunt of Civil War fighting. Located between Washington, the Union capital, and Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital, it was the site of more than 60% of the battles in America's most divisive war.

Man on horseThe major battlefields of Manassas, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, along with several smaller ones, are close to each other and can all be toured in a short stay.

Manassas was the site of two pivotal Civil War confrontations. The Battle of First Manassas (called, in the North, the Battle of First Bull Run), took place on July 21, 1861.

There are two self-guided tours of the first battle: a one-mile walk (Henry Hill trail, the main battlefield) and a five-mile walk (Stone Bridge Trail).

First Manassas is memorable as the first major battle of the war.

The Union, brimming with confidence, believed the war would be over in a matter of weeks. Curious spectators, if you can believe that a war had such onlookers, came from Washington packing picnic lunches to watch the impending battle.

Although one can only imagine what they thought they were going to witness, the reality of war was much different. Once the battle was under way, the picnickers made a mad dash back to the safety of Washington, their romanticism shattered.

The "green," untested soldiers were equally naive and totally unprepared for the brutality of the 10-hour struggle. The intensity of combat at First Manassas convinced the North that the war would be neither easy nor brief.

First Manassas is also notable because it was there that Gen. Thomas Jackson got his nickname for holding ground against heavy Union fire. Henceforth known as "Stonewall," he became a model against which subsequent American generals have been judged.

The Battle of Second Manassas (or the Battle of Second Bull Run), fought Aug. 28 to 30, 1862, was a larger battle covering much more ground.

There is a 12-mile, 12-stop driving tour that is mapped out; there are plaques at each stop.

Driving stop No. 8 is sobering; a monument marks the ridge where Confederate troops charged out of the woods and mowed down two regiments of New York soldiers (called Zouaves and wearing red militia uniforms).

Within five minutes, the Fifth New York Zouaves were annihilated, losing the highest percentage of men in any Union regiment in a single battle during the war.

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