The name suggests a small-town operation, but don't be fooled. For starters, the Manassas Museum stakes a claim on the entire Northern Virginia Piedmont, which extends beyond Prince William County south to the Rappahannock River and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. (Check the huge topographical map on display for more specifics.) And the museum's updated facility, built in 1991, is posh by any museum standards.
The museum presents a very '90s take on history. An immense photographic frieze borders the first gallery space, which leads off with artifacts dealing with settlers' life in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Curiously, the slave owner's perspective is shown through the eyes of a local planter's wife: "It would have been impossible for her to imagine life without these slaves. As her family's property, she saw them as both a responsibility and a family mainstay."
Then a slave woman, called "Sarah," tells another side of the story, of living "in fear of being separated from her family." But the museum touts the Piedmont area's early diversity, pointing to its number of free black landowners and Quakers and the German Baptist Brethren, later migrants to the area.
No Confederate heroes are honored here. Stonewall Jackson, who earned his moniker at the nearby Battle of Bull Run, only gets brief mention. Instead, the exhibit memorializes George Carr Round, a Union officer who was a popular civic leader, and Jennie Dean, a former slave who started the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, for their post-war stamp on the community.
In the second gallery space, the exhibit spares nothing of the Civil War's destructive force: The nearby railroad junction put the area on the Union's hitlist. But if the railroad brought the town's demise, it also revived it after the war. Photographs of local citizens and buildings trace the town's prosperity into this century.
Temporary exhibit space in the museum lobby and hallway often features local events as recent as the mid-20th century. Want to know more about a particular event or person? Make an appointment to use the McBryde Library and Archives.
The museum sponsors living history programs during the summer, often involving reenactments of the daily life of Civil War soldiers, early colonists and railroad workers, as well as a variety of concerts on the lawn.
On the first Friday evening of December each year, enjoy refreshments and free admission to the museum during its Holiday Open House. Also free is the museum's anniversary celebration during the first weekend of every February.
-- Margaret Hutton
This museum is dedicated not to the Civil War battlefield but to the small town after which the battle was named.
Opened in 1991, the museum is handsome and well crafted but modest in scope.
Its artifacts range from Native American spearpoints to tools used by the area's earliest European settlers (a rusty old meat cleaver is pretty memorable) to relics of the town's days as a major railway hub (which is why it became so important during the Civil War). There's a baby cradle from a family named Robinson, circa 1840, and an 1880 baby carriage with wheels bigger than a contemporary bicycle's. A vivid 10-minute video looks mostly at the impact the Civil War battles had on the town.
-- John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Words to the wise: There's a small playground out back, useful if getting to Manassas requires a long drive. The exhibits will bore the 6-and-under crowd. If you'd like to take in the battlefield, the five-mile route between the two turns out to be significant in the story of First Manassas.