For travelers like us, Northern Virginia can be unsettling to the nerves.
It’s at once steeped in history, almost ancient by U.S. standards, but also disgustingly modern, the home of legendary urban sprawl, traffic, and all the negative consequences of close proximity to Washington, D.C., capital of the most powerful government known in the annals of human history.
Despite those negative consequences, we’ve been fortunate over the last year to have taken quite a few road trips through Northern Virginia and the areas surrounding that Capital, including western Maryland and the environs of Gettysburg, PA – only a few hours’ drive from Manassas.
Both Manassas and Gettysburg were sites of famous battles in the War Between the States – a war that challenged the power of the government that would go on to become the world’s most powerful. That particular war would see the deaths of over half a million Americans – many more than any other American War, but far less than the number of those killed in the war to end all wars that we now know as World War I.
World War I ended 96 years ago today on the widely acclaimed 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The English know today as Remembrance Day and it has been immortalized by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem In Flanders Fields:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Our own modern celebration of Veterans Day on November 11th evolved partly from the observance of Remembrance Day in Great Britain.
I visited the fields of the Manassas National Battlefield Park in North Virginia just a few days ago. No poppies grew, but the fields were alive with the ghosts of the men who died on those fields surrounding Henry House Hill – the home of the Park’s Visitors’ Center.
It was on Henry House Hill where that famous Southern general got his nickname Stonewall from another Southern general – Barnard Bee – who was killed immediately after christening Thomas Jackson “Stonewall” and before he could explain its true meaning. We have assumed through the years that it was a compliment to Jackson’s stoicism in the face of apparent defeat – a defeat that was turned quickly to victory.
Despite the lack of poppies, the fields of Manassas, especially in the yellowing fall, have a beauty and a stillness befitting the solemnity of events that occurred a half century before so many men fell among the poppies of Flanders.
Many more men, and not a few women, of this nation have fallen in battles since then and many others have served. What more fitting way to remember such service than through travel. While a visit to Flanders or any number of sites would be undoubtedly awe inspiring, a visit to the fields of Manassas or Gettysburg or Fredericksburg can be done simply and inexpensively.
My hike around Henry House Hill came free of cost.
Even within the sprawl of Northern Virginia and the area’s bloody history, the Manassas National Battlefield is a peaceful spot, where as a people, we have decided to set aside land in honor of those who gallantly served nations and causes. We can now serve them through travel and through remembrance.
If you’re interested in learning more about the battles that occurred around Manassas consider picking up a copy of The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (Vintage Civil War Library) by Shelby Foote, or a copy of the movie Gods and Generals (affiliate links). Both are excellent and I used Foote’s book as a guide to my walk around Henry House Hill.
Don’t hesitate to let us know if you have questions about traveling to any of these spots in and around Northern Virginia, and don’t ever forget to:
Relax…you CAN get there from here!