Manassas Battlefield tour, with Ed Bearss and the Smithsonian

I’m a member of the Smithsonian Resident Associates program – its a whole collection of educational and entertaining activities offered throughout the year ranging from evening lectures to hands-on arts and crafts courses to day tours and even week-long study trips, as well as a certificate program in Art History taught in conjunction with The Corcoran School of Art and George Washington University. A couple weekends ago I went on one of their history tours to Manassas Battlefield for the battle of First Manassas, with Ed Bearss as the tour leader. For those who don’t know, Ed is an underappreciated national treasure. He turns 90 in a month and a bit, was combat wounded in WW II (hit five times by a Japanese machine gun), is the Chief Historian Emeritus of the US Park Service, and appeared in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary as well as a regular on the History Channel’s Civil War Journal. He has forgotten more about the Civil War than any of us will ever know. Ed, at 90, still leads tours over 250 days a year. I’ve taken five of his tours now (maybe six?), but he has some die-hard groupies out there that make me look like a slacker wanna-be fan (I’ve been on tours before where other folks have proudly announced they’ve taken every tour he offers through the Smithsonian, sometimes more than once).

Ed Bearss talking in front of the Stone House, Manassas Battlefield
Ed Bearss talking in front of the Stone House, Manassas Battlefield

Ed is a marvelous story-teller. He recounted the tale of how Stonewall Jackson got his nom-de-guerre:

“And General Bee, upon seeing Thomas Jonathan Jackson with his troops in the edge of the woods, called out to his men “There stands Jackson like a stone wall; rally behind the Virginians”. He may not have meant it as a compliment, however. It all depends, you see, on whether or not he said those two phrases in the same breath. Bee, you see, was a South Carolinian, and may not have held Jackson in particularly high regard. One version has it that he said the two comments an hour apart – if he said them together, it’s a compliment. But if he said them separately, “there stands Jackson like a stone wall” comes off as rather a put-down. The only way we’ll know for sure what General Bee meant is if one of us dies and goes to heaven or hell, and meets General Bee and asks him which it was”

Ed Bearss with Battlefield Map
Ed Bearss with Battlefield Map
Confederate Cannon, Manassas
Confederate Cannon, Manassas

This cannon, although NOT original to the battlefield, is in the relative position of Stonewall Jackson’s unit. One remarkable feature when you see the battlefield is how close the units were- one battery of Union cannon traded hands five times over the course of the day, and they were not more than 100 yards from the Confederate lines.

Henry House
Henry House

The Henry House that you see in the above photo was the home of the widow Henry, one of the first civilian casualties of the Civil War. The house that you see standing now is not her house, but a replacement. Her house was of similar footprint but only one and a half stories tall. It was destroyed when those Union cannons I mentioned previously were turned and fired point-blank into the house where Confederate infantry had concealed themselves and were firing on the Union gunners. One cannonball tore through the house and removed widow Henry’s foot on its way through as she lay in bed.

Within eyesight of the Henry House was the home of “Gentleman” Jim Robinson. Jim was a mulatto man, and the half-brother of widow Henry. Their father was “King” Carter, the tidewater plantation owner and one of the wealthiest men in America at the time of the Revolution. Jim was born a slave but manumitted by his father upon Mr. Carter’s death.

The monument immediately beside the Henry House was erected by Union soldiers immediately after the war, and is one of the oldest Civil War memorials. Perhaps THE oldest is also at Manassas, but is not much more than a pedestal today. It was erected during the war by Confederate soldiers to commemorate one of their generals who was killed at 1st Manassas, but torn down by Union soldiers some time after 2nd Manassas.

Stone House with cannonball, Manassas
Stone House with cannonball, Manassas

Here is the door to the Stone House, with the cleverly placed cannonball embedded in the wall. Note I said cleverly placed – there are a total of five cannonballs stuck in the stonework of the house, but none of them are there as a result of either the first or second battles of Manassas. Rather, they were added to the house at a much later date (some time in the early 20th century) by the owner, to boost the tourist appeal. How do we know? well, for one thing, all of them are neatly embedded, with no flaking, chipping or fracturing of the stone as would have been the case if the wall had been struck by the cannonball at high velocity. For another, one of the cannonballs is of a type not invented or used until some time in the 1870s.

Under the Stone Bridge
Under the Stone Bridge
Bull Run from the Stone Bridge
Bull Run from the Stone Bridge
Stone Bridge over Bull Run
Stone Bridge over Bull Run

Here is the stone bridge, around which much of the early fighting of the day took place. The bridge spans Bull Run, and although the bridge you see here today is of the same stone as the one that stood there at the battle, it is not the original bridge but rather a reconstruction – during the war, the Confederates demolished the central arch of the bridge to deny Union forces access to the other side. This did not stop them of course, but instead Union engineers built a wooden span on the existing foundations, and then it was rebuilt in the 1884 as you see it today. This was the original course of the Warrenton Turnpike (today’s Route 29, the Lee Highway) and all traffic on that route crossed this bridge until the route was straightened and a new two-lane bridge was built adjacent in the 1960s.

I’ll close with another portrait of Ed, with his swagger stick made from a .50 caliber machine gun bullet.

Ed at the Stone Bridge
Ed at the Stone Bridge

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