Northern Virginia: A journey made for Civil War buffs

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At the Battle of Second Manassas, the arrogant Union Gen. John Pope declared, "My headquarters are in the saddle." Upon hearing this, and tired of Pope's boasting, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee quipped, "He has his headquarters confused with his hindquarters."

MANASSAS, Va. -- A trip to Northern Virginia brings visitors into an America that still bears the scars of the Civil War. In Prince William County -- one of five counties considered part of metropolitan Washington -- the war's impact was felt most strongly in Manassas, the site of two battles.

Civil War Reenactment Prince William can be toured as a side trip from Washington or taken on its own. Either way, although there are many attractions in the county, the Manassas battlefields are the main event. And although many tourists will have no desire to visit a battlefield, it's one of those things that everyone should do at least once -- it's almost a civic duty.

More than 130 years later, the War Between the States continues to have a considerable influence on the people and culture of Northern Virginia -- from the battlefields and headstones that serve as constant reminders of the war, to the many tourists who come by bus and by car to learn about the conflict. Many streets, restaurants and hotels are named after famous generals. In Prince William County, the name of Robert Edward Lee is still spoken with reverence.

The battlefields

The battlefields of Manassas, like many Civil War parks, now are peaceful, rolling fields dotted with occasional cannons and trees.

On the main battlefield, Henry Hill, there are a large statue of Stonewall Jackson and a few small monuments. The tree line from which Jackson and his men emerged to join the battle is still intact.

To mark the anniversaries of the battles, Civil War weekends are held every year (roughly the third weekend in July and last weekend in August). There are guided walking tours and special lectures throughout the weekends.

Civil War reenactments can be a treat. Reenactors dressed in blue and gray (often other colors as well) march, shoot, camp and eagerly share information with tourists.

The reenactors have a passion for what they do and are knowledgeable about what they're reenacting, from the exact type of ammunition used to the subtle strategies of the battle. They even assume the identities of real Civil War soldiers. The result is a valuable lesson, a living history book.

The visitor center at Manassas presents a 13-minute slide show. The small museum inside is currently under renovation.

Town of Manassas

Beyond the battlefield, Manassas is a historic town as well. There are walking and driving tours of the Old Town that show visitors buildings, sites and homes that figured in the Civil War and area history.

The Manassas Museum is a modern building displaying Civil War weapons and uniforms, tools, Victorian dress and other historic items.

For a park of a different kind, there is the 17,000-acre Prince William National Park, the largest national park in the Washington area (Prince William counts 50 city, state and federal parks). Only 32 miles south of Washington, it's an antidote to the crowds of the capital, with camping sites and 37 miles of hiking trails.

The hiking paths there were traveled by no less than George Washington. Naturalists may see deer, wild turkey and the rare beaver, plus many bird species.

There is a visitor center with information and exhibits. Group tours are available.

Leesylvania State Park, off the Potomac River, is 508 acres, with six miles of hiking trails. Robert E. Lee's father, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, grew up here when the property was owned by the Lee family. The park, open daily year-round, contains the remains of a Civil War Confederate artillery battery. There also are boating and bird-watching; picnicking is an option for lunch.

Haunted Occoquan

A river cruise on the Potomac to Occoquan Bay brings visitors to the small town of Occoquan, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although it may best be known for the people who used to live there -- supposedly ghosts at every turn -- it's a nice place to visit for the living.

Dozens of homes and buildings are said to be haunted, with colorful stories behind each. For one, there's a ghost who reportedly rips down wind chimes: The noise disturbs him.

For a guided Ghost Tour of Occoquan or for group tours of the town, contact the Occoquan Merchants Association. There is also a Prince William County information center in the town.

The remains of an 18th century gristmill houses the small Mill House Museum containing exhibits on the town's history.

Many historic homes and buildings can be viewed. The small-town charm is evident in antiques shops, crafts stores and other shopping venues.

Other activities

Shopping is on a busier scale at the Potomac Mills Value Outlet, 30 minutes south of Washington. Stores include Ikea, Nordstrom Rack and the Off 5th/Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet. There are 23 eateries.

For serious fun, the place to go is the clean and well-organized Splash Down Water Park, featuring 11 acres of water slides, lap pools, diving boards and tennis and volleyball courts. In short, this is a place you wish existed when you were a kid. The park can be chartered for group events year round.

The normal operating season is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Some activities are limited to kids over 48 inches tall. It's about 30 minutes, traffic permitting, south of Washington. Group rates are available.

Contact information

  • Prince William/Manassas Conference & Visitors Bureau, 14420 Bristow Road., Manassas, Va. 20112; (800) 432-1792; (703) 792-6680; www.visitpwc.com.
  • Prince William County Tourist Information Center, 200 Mill St., Occoquan, Va. 22125; (703) 491-4045.
  • Prince William Forest Park, Box 209, Triangle, Va. 22172, (703) 221-7181.
  • Splash Down Water Park, 7500 Ben Lomond Park Drive, Manassas, Va. 20109; (703) 361-4451.
  • Harbor River Cruises, P.O. Box 724, Occoquan, Va. 22125; (703) 385-9433.
  • The Occoquan Merchants Association, (703) 491-1736.
  • Manassas National Battlefield Park, (703) 361-1339.
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