The heat bore down oppressively. Not the soaring temperatures I’d known in California, but rather a choking, wet warmth that signaled I had come back to the land of war. That was one of the first things I noticed, stepping out of the rental in the visitor center parking lot at Manassas National Battlefield. It had been a long journey, a red-eye flight. My first cross-country trip alone. Navigating out of D.C. and arriving at Manassas had been an adventure all its own. But I had arrived at the site of the first major battle of the Civil War.
Suddenly, I wasn’t weary. I was home.
Ricketts’s cannons. Jackson’s lines. The Henry House. I was determined to see everything I could at this site. I felt overwhelmed. It had been years since I had stood on Virginia soil, and the first time I had visited Bull Run’s battlefields. There was so much to see and learn. All the little details that the history books don’t tell you are suddenly paired with the written history from primary and secondary sources, creating a flood of information in the mind.
Walking on the cut grass path from the Henry House toward where “Jackson still stands” in solid statuesque form, it hit me. This was were innocent ended. This is where shots had been fired that ended the saga of a quick and glorious war. But what happened on these fields – on all battlefields – reverberated long distances. Sure, I knew the facts of this and had even lectured on it a few weeks earlier, but in the field, I began to realize the full impact of those facts. Standing where it happened offered a powerful moment for reflection.
I had been transcribing portions of a journal written by Rebecca Powell of Winchester, Virginia. And as I walked through the grass buzzing with the song of insects and breathed the damp silent air, I remembered her. On Sunday, July 21, 1861, she went about her daily tasks and events. She knew the Confederate troops had left the Shenandoah Valley and that the first battle would be fought sometime soon. Miles away, she had no idea that her beloved brother would die on this battlefield.
There, in the middle of the open ground, in area that would have been between the fighting lines on July 21st, I understood the civilian experience with greater clarity. They were caught between the armies, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. They paid the price – losing loved ones. I knew Rebecca’s words by heart by that time, having read them many times in the previous weeks. Her written sadness captivated my thoughts in that moment:
…while I traced the last lines in the quiet…of the Sabbath evening the deadly struggle was going on, which ended so gloriously for our country & so sadly for ourselves. We did not hear in Winchester of the Manassas battle until on Tuesday came the intelligence that a great victory had been gained & which we were rejoicing…our hearts were almost broken by the dispatch which told us that our noble Brother had laid down his life on that bloody field & a shadow of great darkness settled upon our home.[i]
What happened here had changed lives forever. And not always in the celebrated version of a certain brigade and general or the beginning leadership moment for men in blue.
That stark realization changed me. I had gone from excitement to reality. Like others here before me, I had to face the truth.
Reading at home had familiarized me with the fight, the casualty numbers, the tragedies that hit the regiments and homefronts. But arriving at the Manassas fields forced me to see it, to feel the emotions, to acknowledge the brutal, ingloriousness of war in a way that I had never experienced before. This is one reason that battlefields matter. The landscape of death forces us to look deep within ourselves.
My experience was nothing like the soldiers’, my thoughts and tears nothing like the civilians’. But I tried to understand and process the facts and emotions merging in my mind. That summer I had already experienced what it was like to see a brother march away. I had to deal with the pain of knowing that other sisters’ brothers never came home again and face the personal fears lingering within my own mind and heart.
The bugs whirled on in the tall grass. In the distance, Jackson gazed over the field with a bronzed, frozen expression. The clouds made the sky seem low. Standing between the lines, thinking of the men, thinking of the civilians miles away, thinking of Rebecca and her brother Lloyd… That was the first time I really cried on a battlefield.
Along and then between the battle lines, the reality of war came home. That fateful day in 1861 and in my mind in 2016.
[i] Rebecca Powell Journal, Powell Family Papers, August 1861. Accessed on Microfilm, January 2015.