A couple of weeks ago, Manassas National Battlefield held a controlled burn in the area of the Deep Cut. Here, on August 30, 1862, thousands of Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter attacked Confederate troops positioned along an unfinished railroad embankment. Stonewall Jackson’s defenders bloodily repulsed the Federals, which set the stage for the dramatic conclusion to the Battle of Second Manassas.
I have been thinking a lot lately about Porter’s attack here since Porter is the subject of my talk for the 2021 Emerging Civil War Symposium. The fighting at the Deep Cut has fascinated me otherwise. It was a brutal, close-quarters, deadly action. One local citizen who served as a guide for the Confederate army walked the path of Porter’s assault the next day. He claimed he “saw more destruction of life here” than any other battlefield of the war. “I could have walked a hundred yards on dead and wounded men and never touch my feet to the ground.” Hopefully, none of us will ever have an experience like this. But a controlled burn was about the closest I thought I might get to see a landscape scarred by an event reminiscent of a Civil War battle.
Once the burn subsided and the National Park Service deemed it safe for visitors, I set out to walk the Deep Cut area. Looking from the parking lot, one could see the trail network weaving through blackened earth. The lack of undergrowth made the subtleties of the terrain stand out. However, as I began to walk, the smell that wafted towards my nose soon replaced the visual sensations.
I walked the area four days after the burn ended. The smell lingered. For anyone who reads Civil War diaries and letters, soldiers talk about the smell–the stench of dead men and horses, charred ground,and burnt gunpowder. The entire Deep Cut area smelled like a large bonfire after days of quiet. It was a smell I could not escape, and one that made me recall many quotes I have read about the stench of a battle’s aftermath.
As I moved closer to the unfinished railroad, another hallmark of the effects of battle on a natural landscape struck me: the desolation. Blackened tree trunks stood solo amidst open fields with no leaves, bringing to mind images of wartorn landscapes around Atlanta, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, or any World War I battlefield. Though this burn was controlled, it left me tangible reminders of how a battlefield must have looked, smelled, and felt after uncontrolled chaos engulfed it.