Treading Lightly On Sacred Ground

Visitors to the Manassas National Battlefield Park (MNBP), site of the first battle of what became the Civil War, now have a clearer view of the battlefield--and a better understanding of that momentous event in our nation’s history.

That’s because a land-clearing project at the Manassas, Va., site was recently completed to return it to its original condition during the First (and Second) Battle of Manassas. For the first time, visitors can stand on the battle lines of the Union forces, and see the cannon lines of Confederate forces, just as they did on July 21, 1861 (First Battle of Manassas) and August 28 through 30, 1862 (Second Battle of Manassas). Visitors can even gaze upon the hillsides and imagine the townsfolk enjoying a picnic lunch, watching what they were sure would be a quick rout of the Confederates. Little did the townspeople know how important that battle would be--or their contribution to our nation’s heritage.

Scott Reigel, co-owner of the consulting forestry firm Clear Creek Forestry, LLC, is a Civil War buff, and his company’s contribution is returning the battlefields to historical accuracy. Clear Creek teamed up with members of MNBP in all phases of the project, including mapping, area layout, environmental assessment, harvest planning and supervising the logging operation as well as debris cleanup and removal. “We knew the importance of this project, not only for its historical importance but also for future generations. It was an opportunity for us to make a difference. We also knew that it would be a struggle with the public because of the sensitivity of the site.” Scott says. “But it was a project that we definitely wanted to take on and be a part of.”

Digging In

The project had a two-pronged approach--restoration of an eight-acre site at Mathews Hill and another 118 acres at the Brawner Farm and Deep Cut area. These two sites had significant historical importance within the 4,000 acres owned by the park today.

The goal in the first of the two sites was essentially correcting a mistake made in the 1940s when a landscape-restoration project went astray. When the U.S. Park Service acquired the private property to preserve it, the area was predominantly plowed pasture land. To recreate the original conditions, a landscaping project called for planting trees. Unfortunately, the trees selected were Loblolly Pine, and were planted in the wrong location. As the non-native trees grew, they obstructed the view, and gave a historically inaccurate depiction of the battlefield. Their removal has made a dramatic change, as visitors can now stand at the Union cannon lines of Mathews Hill and look over to Buck Hill where the Confederate forces stood. They can look from Mathews Hill across the roof of the Old Stone House and see Henry Hill (location of the current visitors’ center), to where the Union forces pushed the Confederates. Henry Hill is where the infamous Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson earned his name, as he stood strong and successfully ordered his troops to attack the approaching Union forces. The result of that afternoon battle was approximately 3,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing for the Union and 2,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing for the Confederates, turning it into the most significant and deadly battle on U.S. soil.

A Sensitive Site

The second site has its own significance. It, too, was a Confederate victory that spanned a three-day period. The site stretches from the lawns of the Brawner Farm house and Confederate cannon lines across to the banks of the Unfinished Railroad/Deep Cut. This 118-acre restoration location was the most dramatic change of the project. In the site’s previous condition, visitors would follow hiking trails through the forest, stopping to read historical battle signs to understand the events of those days. As timber was being removed, the public became alarmed. “We knew that once we started removing trees at this site that the public would really start to get involved with the project. Regardless of the processes and public reviews of the environmental assessment, it was going to be a given that these battlegrounds would come alive once again.” Scott says. “The park held a public tour [to show] the meaning and actions that were being taken to protect the site, which helped folks understand.”

“To me, this project was more than just removing trees and the issues revolved around that. This site is sacred, and we were making an even larger monument than the Deep Cut Monument (erected by Union forces to the fallen brothers that stands today on the banks of the Unfinished Railroad),” Scott says. “We are making sure that the over 21,000 dead, wounded and missing soldiers and their fearless actions during those three days will never be forgotten. This is more than a beautiful modern-day monument in some public place. This will allow visitors to stand on the grounds, and visualize how unbelievable those days were.”

It would hardly seem prudent to pack a picnic basket as folks did that afternoon near Mathews Hill and head out to Tikrit, the Sunni Triangle or any other Iraqi war zone these days. But that is the historical distortion which plagues our imagination. The recent restoration project gives us a clear view of what things were like on the battlefield. And while that has Civil War historians and visitors to the site excited, some environmental groups are none too pleased with the clearing project.

Not Every Tree Worth Hugging

This land is historic for several reasons. It is the first battle of the Civil War--and it is the only site where two were fought. The land was privately owned until Teddy Roosevelt established the National Park Service. For the first time in history, visitors can walk the battlefield and imagine the opposing soldiers just as they were more than a hundred years ago.

With the 150th anniversary in 2011, the park system has begun the evaluation process to perform similar projects on other Civil War park sites. One goal is to restore the sites to battle conditions. Another is to improve the educational experience of visitors.

“It is important for all people to look past the act of removing trees, and to the historical importance of restoring and maintaining the accuracy of these sites. It is extremely selfish and near-sighted for anyone to protest these restoration projects for the sake of saving a tree. This is our history, this is protecting the importance of that history for generations to come,” Scott says. “You let that die and you are letting the memorials of over 600,000 of our family members die with it.”