Researching and writing a book about a “lost battle” is always a challenge. As you start to find a wealth of research and information, you wonder, “Why is it lost?” In the case of Bristoe Station, the “loss” comes because in the public narrative of the Civil War. It is skipped over between Lee’s loss at Gettysburg (the so-called “high tide”) and the ushering in of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S Grant at the Wilderness.
Though two battles were fought on the fields around Bristoe Station (Battle of Kettle Run in 1862 and Bristoe Station in 1863), there was no push for monuments, remembrances, or preservation like at other battlefields. Part of that is because the South wanted to forget the 1863 battle because it resulted in a disastrous defeat for Lee and his “last move north.” For the north, the Bristoe Campaign was not favorable overall to Meade, whom many have documented is one of our most forgotten generals.
But my experience in “finding” Bristoe Station is a more personal one, one of the many twists of fate we all experience in our lives.
Many years ago—more than I would like to admit to—I and a fellow Civil War enthusiast (and now National Park Ranger) were out tramping across Northern Virginia looking for Civil War sites. I grew up in Leesburg, VA, so I know the spots well, but there was one that I had not been to before: Bristoe Station. With maps and books in hand (yes, this was before the era of smart phones), off to the Manassas area we went. At the time, only one book was published about Bristoe Station,William Henderson’s Road to Bristoe Station. Like most books then, there was little modern wayfinding or interpretation to help you visit the site.
A few miles past downtown Manassas, we saw a VDOT directional sign saying “Bristow,” and we made the turn off of Route 28 onto Bristow Road. The name has changed over time, from “Bristoe” to “Bristow,” and I was at least aware of that much. But there were no other historic signs, no pull offs—nothing but a lot of “no trespassing” signs posted along the roadway.
We finally came to the railroad and pulled over in a small area where train watchers sit and watch the trains pass by (a hobby I never understood, but they probably see mine as equally as strange). With little space, little interpretation, and a setting sun, my friend and I got out of the car and took photos of the railroad and the crossing where the Rebels broke through on October 14, 1863, but from which they were eventually repulsed. We saw a large hill in a distance: this must be the hill the Confederate artillery was posted on and eventually captured on near the end of the battle.
Taking our photographs and thinking of ourselves as explorers, we jumped back in the car and celebrated our expedition with a toast at a nearby watering hole.
Fast forward ten years and, in my professional capacity, I was working for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division. Due to the generous support of the Civil War Preservation Trust, 120 acres was recently preserved at Bristoe Station and donated to the County to be operated as a Civil War park. As I first visited this preserved land, I soon realized an egregious error: my friend and I on our trip to Bristoe ten years prior had the battle flipped. We had the Confederate and Federal armies on the wrong side of the railroad. YIKES!
Soon, as we developed the park with signage and trails, I said to myself, “A tour book needs to be written about this place so others will not make the same mistake.” Plus, being a newly preserved battlefield, a guidebook was necessary to educate people not just on the battle, but also its importance in the Civil War timeline and the unpreserved battlefield land. With the development of the new Emerging Civil War series, this was a great fit for what I thought Bristoe Station needed.
What drew me to Emerging Civil War was the public history focus of the series. As a public historian in my “day job,” I thought this series was filling a void: tell an engaging story, get people to visit the ground where the history happened, and promote preservation. I think ECW has done that masterfully and continues to do that with the blog, Symposium, and book series. I consider myself honored to be a small part of a great program.
A Want of Vigilance: The Bristoe Station Campaign, October 9-19, 1863
by Bill Backus and Robert Orrison
Savas Beatie, 2015