Manassas Battlefield Poised for Civil War Celebrations

Story from The Washington Post, May 14, 2011:

There was no grand vision to create a tourism package around Manassas’s historic sites, though many hope that is about to change.

“We call Gettysburg the mothership — the center of the universe for the Civil War,” said Ed Clark, the Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent. “It will probably always be the most-visited place, but there is a lot of opportunity for Manassas and the stories we have to tell.”

For the first time, historians and elected officials say, there’s a perfect confluence: Prince William supervisors and Manassas council members see the value of tourism and want to invest in their historic assets, a new leader is in charge of the visitors bureau, and a major anniversary of the war fought on Manassas soil is coming up.

“The 150th is our moment to turn the tide in terms of our tourism product,” said Ann Marie Maher, named last year as director of the Prince William County/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is our linchpin year and the only one we will have in our generation to have events that will capture the attention of the nation.”

The county is planning a four-day sesquicentennial event July 21-24. The main attraction: As many as 10,000 reenactors will descend on a farm adjacent to the battlefield to re-create the First Battle of Manassas. (Though huge, the reenactment will be about half the size Owen wanted.)

Officials say the event is a collaboration involving Historic Manassas Inc., the city of Manassas, Prince William County, the National Park Service and the convention and visitors bureau. The city and the county have budgeted about $1 million to support not only the July commemoration, but several smaller events leading up to it.

Volunteers, government employees and contractors have spent several years working to rehabilitate some of the 30-plus Prince William and Manassas historic sites that they see as hidden Civil War-era gems that help tell the story of the nation.

Some sites, including the Brentsville Courthouse, where the Prince William Cavalry was formed, have opened to the public. But crews are still putting the finishing touches on others, such as the Ben Lomond Historic Site, home to a Confederate hospital used after the first Manassas battle. A member of the Lee family passed away there, historians say.

Visiting the ‘mothership’

Manassas has faced an uphill struggle in the Civil War tourism game for decades, historians and tourism officials say. In Gettysburg, people began flocking to the smoldering battlefield the day the fighting ended, looking for loved ones or wanting to witness firsthand what had just happened.

Driving to Gettysburg up winding country roads, visitors know they are entering hallowed ground. Tourists are swept onto the battlefield through a new $100 million visitors center created through a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation.The museum features interactive displays, artifacts and the famous cyclorama — a 360-degree painting that depicts Pickett’s Charge. It immerses visitors in the battle and sets a somber tone.

The 6,000 acres are dotted with 1,300 monuments brought by states that had a stake in the war and by family and friends of those who fought. There are 155 licensed guides who tell stories that bring the battlefield to life.

The town of Gettysburg existed at the time of the war, and it now adds to tourists’ experience. Streets are lined with “settler stores” and antique shops, bed and breakfasts, and buildings whose walls are still marked by bullet holes or cannon shells. People wander the town in period attire.

Over the decades, while Gettysburg and Adams County worked hard to enhance the visitor experience, Prince William area officials did not, historians and tourism officials say. Nor was there as big a push to protect the Manassas battlefield because it was surrounded mostly by farmland; nobody thought development would encroach. But it did, marching right up to the battlefield’s front gate.

When visitors come to the battlefield now, they pass strip malls and big-box stores. Roads heavily traveled by commuters cut through the park — not exactly setting the mood tourists want when visiting a hallowed place.

The 5,000 acres hold a quaint visitors center that could fit inside Gettysburg’s. Few monuments or historic buildings are on the battlefield. Because it was the site of two Confederate victories, there was not a lot of interest from the Northern states to commemorate what happened. And, Clark said, many Southern states did not have the money for memorials at the time. Only five guides and a handful of volunteers work there; Clark, the superintendent, is asking for $403,000 more in federal funding to enhance the guide program.

Still, steps from the visitors center, there’s a place where people can feel the ghosts of those who spilled their blood. The sounds of nearby Interstate 66 are muted, and visitors can see nothing but rolling, open land.

Manassas has tried to put its history on the map, starting 50 years ago when people gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First Battle. Because of poor planning, though, the event was a fiasco.

Historians estimate that 100,000 to 150,000 people came for a reenactment, but inadequate restrooms and roads made it a nightmare. The reenactment destroyed portions of the battlefield and is the reason Congress now prohibits such events on battlegrounds.

In the 1990s, officials tried again, this time leaning on Disney, which wanted to build “Disney’s America” — a history theme park — just outside the battlefield. Officials thought Disney would put the community and the battlefield on people’s radar, but many residents fought the plan, fearing desecration of the land. Disney walked away.

‘Once in a lifetime’

Tourism officials know that the pressure is on come July, and one of their biggest fears is traffic, especially for events that will compete with rush hour. They expect 50,000 visitors; the American Bus Association has named the county and city the No. 1 U.S. tour destination for 2011.

“What wakes you up at 2 in the morning is what if someone gets here — and it’s completely gridlock — and looks at this as a complete failure,” said Debbie Haight, director of the nonprofit Historic Manassas, which promotes Old Town Manassas.

It will be important not only to pull off a successful weekend, but to maintain the momentum the commemoration is expected to generate. Word of mouth will be a key marketing tool, tourism officials say, and they hope a successful event will encourage government officials to invest more in local historic assets.

“This is the time when the opportunity and our infrastructure meet . . . and at the end of this, we will have a better product than we have now,” said Prince William Historic Preservation Director Brendon Hanafin.

Playing off the excitement of the sesquicentennial, Corey A. Stewart, the Board of County Supervisors chairman, said he wants to begin branding Prince William as a military history corridor where people can stop at the battlefield, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the future American Wartime Museum. That attraction is scheduled to open in 2014 and cover every era of war from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said the county is also working to create what Gettysburg has: a Civil War-era town. There is an undeveloped strip outside the battlefield that the county envisions turning into a town center featuring period architecture and shops.

“There is a lot of pressure on the July event, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we need to take advantage of,” Stewart said. “Until a year ago, we hadn’t done a good job marketing the county as a tourist destination. But that is about to change. I hope this is the beginning of the rebirth of tourism here.”


Dozens of Civil War events are scheduled in the Manassas area between now and the July 21-24 anniversary. For complete listings, go to

July 21

Free day at
Manassas National Battlefield

6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas; opening ceremony: hands-on demonstrations, 3D photography, living history; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.;

100th anniversary
of the National Jubilee of Peace

4 p.m. at Old Manassas Courthouse at the intersection of Grant and Lee avenues; parking at Prince William fairground; free;

Sesquicentennial concert

8 p.m. at Hylton Performing Arts Center,

10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas; Tickets $30-$60; 703-993-7550 or

July 21-24

Manassas Museu m

Living history, military demonstrations, music and crafts; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; free; 9101 Prince William St., Manassas; 703-361-6599

Camp Manassas

Military encampments, horse training, soap-making, period games; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Jennie Dean Historic site, 9601 Wellington Rd., Manassas; free; 703-361-6599 or

July 22

Manassas Civil War parade

10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Old Town Manassas, free; 703-361-6599,

July 22-24

150th anniversary of
First Battle of Manassas

Battlefield tours, artillery demonstrations 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Quantico Marine Corps Band on July 23; $3 per person for a three-day pass;; tickets

July 23-24

Reenactment of
the First Battle of Manassas

7 a.m. to 3 p.m.,Pageland Farm, Gainesville, Va.; parking at Jiffy Lube Live; tickets are up to $24; 703-396-7130 or

Bristoe Station Battlefield tours

11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 10709 Bristow Rd., Bristow; $5 , under 6 free; 703-792-5546

July 23

Pringle House
Confederate Field Hospital

First-person interpretive program from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Ben Lomond Historic Site, 10321 Sudley Manor Rd., Manassas; $15, under 6 free; 703-367-7872; not appropriate for children younger than 11.

United Daughters of the
Confederacy wreath-laying

2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; 9027 Center St., Manassas; 703-368-1873 or


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