Last week I visited Manassas Battlefield Park. It was 95 degrees, the mosquitoes swarmed me, and the park ranger warned of tics in the tall grass. I walked through dusty trails, scratchy weeds, and sweltered under the afternoon sun but I loved every second of it!
As much as I’d like to detail the fun aspects of my trip to the site of the First and Second Battles of Bull Run (as well as the not-so-fun aspects of a rental car nightmare), this post is about something bigger—the importance of historical interpretation.
As anyone who has visited a battlefield knows, there is an intangible majesty about these places. The open fields, rolling hills, and lines of trees all make for a striking scene. Battlefields are eerily peaceful. The cannons sit stoic and silent, no one charges the wooden fences breaking up open grassland, and the breeze carries no bullets.
But there is still one place on the battlefield where sabers clamor and wars rage—the monuments.
I’ve written before on the importance statues carry with them. The chosen subject, how they’re depicted, and any writing all say more about the time in which the monument is dedicated than the subject themselves. Monuments have an immense power to inspire or destroy and we must be careful in how we handle them (read more here: https://mitchlohr.com/2017/07/how-to-neuter-a-statue/ ).
Two things struck me most about the monuments at Manassas: the superhero-like statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the deft answer of a park ranger to a tricky question.
Manassas Battlefield Park is gorgeous, and a park ranger tour is the perfect way to enjoy it. Sitting atop Henry Hill, the visitors center provides an ideal vantage point right in the heart of the action from the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). A row of cannons line the walk from the main building to the Henry House.
Rebuilt after collapsed following near-point blank bombardment that resulted in the death of its 85-year-old owner, the Henry House stands next to the first monument of the battle. The Bull Run Monument was completed on June 10, 1865 and constructed with red sandstone from an unfinished railroad. The structure is simple and was one of the first monuments dedicated to Civil War soldiers. The Union soldiers who put it together left a short inscription upon it:
In some ways it is telling that this is how the soldiers themselves chose to memorialize their comrades. The Bull Run Monument reveals veterans focused on preserving the memory of their friends. The Union lost both battles of Bull Run, but Northern soldiers still wanted to mark their efforts with a subtle, solemn reminder.
I emphasize the simplicity of the Bull Run Monument because just across the ridge is a statue that couldn’t be more different.
Erected in 1940 (a casual 79 years after the First Battle of Bull Run), the statue depicts both Stonewall Jackson and his horse as gigantic and absurdly muscular. Jackson himself is so built that it seems like Warner Brothers is about to announce him as the next Batman. It is a ridiculous statue with a design more befitting Soviet Russia than America, but it is also incredibly tragic.
Many Confederate monuments were constructed several decades after the Civil War itself. In fact, their construction typically coincided with different periods of rising racial tensions when white Americans were most hostile toward African Americans.
1940 aligned with the height of Jim Crow segregation across most of America. Feeling pressure from professional historians and socio-political pressure from the emerging Civil Rights Movement, more Confederate monuments popped up in the ’60s as an aggressive form of white backlash.
As distorted as Jackson looks in his monument, it isn’t because the sculptor didn’t know how to depict him realistically. It is because the statue was a gift from the Sons of the Confederacy who wanted a memorial espousing the strength of the white South and the “righteousness” of the Confederate cause.
Perhaps the statue is best understood in comparison to the Bull Run Monument. Whereas the Bull Run Monument was constructed by Union veterans immediately after the war, the Jackson Monument was gifted by Confederate descendants and followers decades after. Whereas the Bull Run Monument memorializes the many, the Jackson Monument pays tribute to one man. Whereas the Bull Run Monument sought to allow comrades and loved ones to remember the fallen, the Jackson Monument sought to intimidate African Americans and embolden white racists.
When asked about the statue, our tour guide deftly explained the history of the park itself. For over a century after the Civil War, the federal government hesitated to buy land upon which the Union lost a battle. This meant that many southern states bought up the land and had free reign to build as many Confederate monuments as they wanted. Visitors centers and plaques filled with misinformation designed to perpetuate the myth that the Civil War was never about slavery and the Confederacy fought a valiant, righteous war.
As we move forward, there will be many more debates over what to do with memorials such as this. In the meantime, it is crucial that we have fantastic park rangers such as the one who led our tour to educate future generations. History is complex and complicated, but examining its scars help us grow.
I still believe that the Manassas Battlefield Park is incredibly beautiful and peaceful. It is a grand classroom in which visitors can engage history in person. I don’t know what the answer is to the monument debate, but I do know that battlefields will always offer unique ways feel the empathy on which history relies.
If you would like to help protect battlefields and the vital form of education they provide, please consider supporting organizations like the American Battlefield Trust. They provide fantastic history resources for Revolutionary, 1812, and Civil War battlefields. You can learn more about the battles of Bull Run and the organization at the following link:
NOTE: While Second Bull Run (Aug. 29-30, 1862) also occurred around the same battlefield, we only went on the tour of the first battle.