Today marks the 145th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run or, as the South referred to it First Manassas, the first major battle of the Civil War. From where I sit right now, the battle took place less than five miles away. Tomorrow and Sunday, reenactors will gather in Middletown, Virginia to stage the battle again.
When legions of Washington residents retreat to beaches, lakes and pools this weekend, Fairfax City’s Stephen Wolfsberger will put on a thick wool coat and trousers, march into battle under the broiling sun and try to avoid being “shot” by federal troops wielding muskets packed with gunpowder and Cream of Wheat.
His cause: the 145th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run.
Known to Confederate reenactors such as Wolfsberger as First Manassas, the battle on July 21, 1861, was the Civil War’s first large-scale confrontation. The clash will be restaged in grand fashion Saturday and Sunday in the Shenandoah Valley community of Middletown. As for the heat, well, as any 21st-century Civil War soldier knows, there’s nothing like a little physical suffering to put history in perspective.
“We do this to honor the original guys,” said Wolfsberger, 1st sergeant of the 17th Virginia Infantry Regiment, Company D, the Fairfax Rifles. “It’s an immersion weekend, a chance to sleep under the stars without really having to face the risk of disease or death.”
Wolfsberger is one of more than 7,000 battle-ready reenactors expected to invade Middletown, trailed by about 400 cavalry horses, 75 cannons and more than 10,000 spectators, organizers said. There will also be interpretive exhibits, sutlers selling period attire, Victorian tea parties and Civil War-era music. Because the National Park Service prohibits the reenactors from using the actual battlefield in Manassas, the event will be held 60 miles away on the privately owned Cedar Creek Battlefield.
The “fighting” will take place over two 90-minute periods each day, with soldiers firing rifles and artillery loaded with black powder blanks — Cream of Wheat holds the combustible material in place. Although the 1861 battle resulted in more than 4,000 casualties, organizers of this year’s version have cooling tents, ambulances and an emergency helicopter standing by in case today’s troops start dropping from the heat.
Unlike Gettysburg, Cedar Creek and other engagements that are reenacted annually, the Battle of Bull Run is held every five years. It’s deeply revered for its significance, particularly among Confederate impressionists. Organizers say it will be the largest Civil War gathering this year.
I’m not quite sure why the reenactment is taking place in Middletown instead of Manassas, but its interesting that its happening anyway.