You get two battles for the price of one at Manassas National Battlefield Park, about 25 miles southwest of Washington. These rolling fields and woodlots in northern Virginia were the scene of the first major clash between Union and Confederate armies. And the railroad junction here was of such strategic importance that the two armies staged a rematch a little over a year later.
Many Americans on both sides had thought that this feud over slavery and states' rights would be quickly resolved. Ten hours of chaotic fighting here on July 21, 1861, changed all that.
To learn about that first battle of Manassas — or Bull Run, as those in the North called it — you can take a one-mile self-guided walking tour across the grassy top of Henry Hill. Other tours of roughly the same length take you to other spots in that first battle.
Walking away from the visitor's center, you pass a row of cannon that changed hands five times in the seesaw struggle. You come to a two-story frame house, rebuilt in 1870, where you learn about Judith Carter Henry, the only civilian killed in the battle. The bedridden 85-year-old widow was mortally wounded when her house was fired on by one of those cannon after Confederate soldiers started shooting at the gunners from her windows.
There are interpretive signs explaining stops on the tour, but I listened along to a podcast. The narrative provides more context and color, urging the listener in one instance to imagine waves of soldiers emerging from a line of trees, screaming and hollering as they advance — the first "rebel yell" that was to become a trademark of Confederate attacks throughout the war.
The second battle of Manassas took place in August 1862 a few miles to the west and covered more terrain. Not as well known, the battlefield here is less crowded, more natural, with walks mapped out of 1.2 to 2.6 miles.
I joined a living history tour led by Neal West, a Waldorf resident wearing the butternut uniform of a Georgia volunteer. West, who said his great-great-great-grandfather fought with a Georgia unit at Second Manassas, demonstrated how to load and fire his replica 1858 Enfield rifle, one of the standard infantry weapons of the war. The muzzle-loader's two-step cocking mechanism, he explained, was the source of the popular term "going off half-cocked.''
Getting there: Manassas National Battlefield Park, 6511 Sudley Road, Manassas, Va. 20109.
Hiking time: Allow at least 4 hours
Admission: $3 per person; children under age 16 are free.