One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 9, Number 4
April 2001

The year was 1936. The month was July. Newspapers headlined stories about the Fascists fighting the Marxists in the Spanish Civil War, and the battleship Oklahoma being sent to the Iberian Peninsula to protect American citizens, Turkish warships entering the Dardanelles, a severe drought in the United States, Alf Landon launching his campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a trial in Petersburg that resulted in a hung jury. In the latter case, a theater manager had been arrested and fined $5 for showing movies on Sunday. Meanwhile in Charlottesville, the Daily Progress sold for 3 cents a copy.

On July 21, however, another major event was the feature story on the front pages of such papers as the Washington Post, Richmond News Leader, Times Dispatch, and Daily Progress. Headlines proclaimed: “Blue and Gray Battle Once More at Dedication of Manassas Park,” “Confederates Charge Into the Valley of Death Again at Manassas,” and “40,000 Persons Watch the Boys in Blue and Gray at Manassas.” It was all about the “third battle of Manassas” that took place on the 75th anniversary of the Civil War engagement.

The anniversary was particularly celebrated that year because the area was soon to become a national battlefield park to be marked with appropriate markers showing not only the high points of interest in the first battle of 1861, but also those of the second battle of august 29 and 30, 1862. The local Civilian Conservation Corps and National Park Service employees had been laboring for months building access roads, repairing fences, and grooming the battlefield for the grand opening and dedication of the park.

With apologies to the old Edward R. Murrow television history program of the fifties entitled “You Are There,” I really was there! Being only six at the time, it is one of my earliest memories of childhood and a thrill that I will never forget. My father took the family, and with another forty thousand or so spectators, we all crowded the hills and slopes of the present Manassas battlefield for as far as the eye could see. Perhaps it wasn’t as grand an affair as I imagined it to be at the time, after all only about 2,500 soldiers participated. But, as Charlie Brown astutely observed, people, places, and things always seemed a lot bigger when you were young. But for sure, the birth of any addiction to the history of this tragic conflict began on that day.

The 1936 reenactment of the first Battle of Manassas along with the creation of the National Park perhaps marked the end of the long dormancy of the post-Civil War era, and the nascency of modern Civil War history so manifest today in the flood of literature, roundtables, seminars, reenactments, land preservation, etc., that we see all around us. Although Douglas Southall Freeman, the renowned Civil War historian and editor of the Richmond News Leader, had published his monumental four-volume R. E. Lee in 1934 (he had started it in 1915!), there seems to have been relatively little attention devoted to the history of the war during the early 20th century.

The July 21, 1936, event was not the typical reenactment that we are accustomed to seeing today. Some writers at the time called it a “sham” battle, others described it as a “re-creation.” The reason is that the men involved were not simply Civil War enthusiasts or bluffs. They were real soldiers dressed in contemporary uniforms, and used modern weapons. Leaving nothing out, planes from the Marine Air Force closed the proceedings with an anachronistic “combat flight.”

The First Battalion of the 5th Regiment, and the Tenth Artillery from the same regiment of Marines, all from nearby Quantico, represented the Union Army of General Irvin McDowell. All wore blue dungaree fatigue uniforms. The “Confederates,” on the other hand, consisted of khaki-clad doughboys of the Twelfth Infantry Brigade, Battery B of the Sixteenth Field Artillery, Reserve Officers Training Corps, and a squadron of the Third Cavalry. Believe it or not, the army contingent representing the Southern forces was commanded by a U.S. Army major named Stonewall Jackson! All the troops carried 1903 Springfield rifles equipped with bayonets.

To make sure things ran smoothly, the participants had a dress rehearsal on July 20th. Battlefield events were precisely timed and orchestrated so as to create as much realism and authenticity as possible. For example, Douglas Freeman, the day’s principal speaker, quoted Stonewall Jackson’s battle report over the public address system: “At 3:30 p.m. the enemy’s position was such as to call for the use of the bayonet. I called for the charge.” Dr. Freeman, evidently absorbed in the spirit of the great Jackson, then looked at his watch. “In a few minutes,” his voice rang out dramatically, “it will be 3:30 and we will see whether history is repeated.” On the stroke of 3:30—75 years to the minute—the charge was made, and Jackson’s men poured down the plateau and drove the tenacious Yankees (blue-clad Marines) from the field to the cheers of the wild Rebel yell rising from the thousands of spectators.

Even though U.S. troops were involved in the staged event, numerous spectators commented upon the absence of the American flag. Although the Confederate Stars and Bars waved over the victorious wearers of the gray, the Federal troops carried only signal flags. A United States Army ruling that the flag could not be used in any sham battle where it was carried in retreat explained the absence of the national emblem.

Not everything went precisely as planned. As Freeman neared the end of his eloquent speech introducing the battle, his voice was drowned out as the medley from cannon, rifles, bugles, and drums rolled across the battlefield. For the most part, however, only a few mishaps marred the affair. One private was hurt when his horse stumbled into a ditch and threw him to the ground; and the Third Cavalry lost a horse when, in the excitement, it dashed onto Route 29 and was struck by a truck.

The day attracted a number of prominent visitors such as Governor George Peery, senators, representatives, the secretary of war, the Right Reverend H. St. George Tucker, Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, and numerous other dignitaries. Included among the spectators were about a dozen aged Confederate veterans, such as “Captain” Harry Wooding, age 92, who had been wounded in the 1861 battle as a seventeen-year-old member of the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment. In July of 1936 Wooding had served as mayor of Danville for 44 years. He would die two years later at age 94. Like many of the old veterans who were “promoted” in memory long after the war, Wooding was identified as “Captain” even though he had left the Army of Northern Virginia as a corporal.

There are people today who wish to erase history and criticize the reenactments and attention directed to the Civil War as being inappropriate and divisive. I think that Virginia Governor George Peery anticipated such questions and concerns in 1936 in his opening remarks: “In spite of the tragedies that accompanied this battle and the war, there is something really beautiful to me on this occasion, for I see in it not the glorification of war, but the fact that here, on this once bloody and now historic battlefield, the strong hand of the Federal Government will develop this area, not for another war, not where the youth of our land might be sacrificed—but rather, into another great battlefield park for the purpose of education and memorialization.”

As a little boy I really wasn’t interested in which side was winning or losing the battle. I was much more excited by the waves of soldiers and horses sweeping back and forth across the Henry House plateau, the cannons belching out clouds of smoke, the vast panorama of flags, and the rebel yell echoing across the fields. My father, however, being the son of a Confederate veteran, took great delight in pointing out to me the hordes of Yankees fleeing back across Bull Run at the battle’s climax. As far as he was concerned, the good guys had won.