As Civil War anniversary nears, Manassas sees a historic opportunity

May 14, 2011

The 6-foot-4 Manassas businessman Creston Owen was a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy, so when he began planning for the Civil War sesquicentennial, everyone knew it wouldn’t be a small affair.

After immersing himself in history books and movies and buying Civil War garb, Owen unveiled in 2009 his grand vision for a nine-day extravaganza that would center on a reenactment in which tens of thousands of “soldiers” marched the rolling countryside, re-creating the First Battle of Manassas. Busloads would arrive for an event that he said would capture the nation’s imagination. He even wanted to build an RV park where people could camp in the middle of the action.

His dream and his passion caught the attention of the community, and his enthusiasm spread like wildfire as people bought into his belief that Manassas had an opportunity to truly capitalize on its historic assets for the first time in 150 years.

But Owen, one of the greatest cheerleaders for Manassas and its history, won’t get to see it through. The 45-year-old Catlett resident was shot and killed in November in what police said was an apparent gun-cleaning accident.

Owen is gone, but the excitement he generated is not. All eyes are now on a four-day Civil War commemoration in July that could significantly elevate the community’s place in Civil War tourism.

“Creston was the voice of the sesquicentennial,” said his wife, Sharon Owen. “He was the catalyst who planted the seed, and now the rest of us have to water the seed and make sure it keeps growing. I’m going to do everything I can to keep his dream alive.”

For decades, the Manassas battlefield in Prince William County has been the red-headed stepchild to Gettysburg, whose name has been branded by history books and movies.

Gettysburg and Adams County, where the battlefield lies, have a population of 108,000, about 6,000 of whom are in the tourism industry. The battlefield sees 1.5 million of the 3 million annual visitors to the area, and in 2009, tourism generated $381 million.

Manassas and Prince William, with almost four times the population, bring in 3 million visitors each year, too, but only about 630,000 stopped at the battlefield last year. In 2009, the localities received $465 million from tourism.

Gettysburg is a name known around the globe. Some see it as the turning point of the Civil War; some idolize it because of Abraham Lincoln’s famous address that turned a place of such tragedy into a place of hope.

But Manassas has its own rich history. The First Battle of Manassas, on July 21, 1861, also called the First Battle of Bull Run, made people realize that the war would not be short, easy or bloodless; 900 of the 60,000 soldiers there died. It is also a place where the country came back together after the war. In 1911, former Union and Confederate soldiers gathered at the Prince William County Courthouse for the first time in 50 years for a ceremony of reconciliation.

In D.C.’s shadow

That history gets lost, though, in a place in the shadows of Washington. Instead, Manassas has been branded a distant suburb, often recognized more for its outlet mall than its battlefield. County officials and residents say that over the years, people have emphasized Prince William’s other attractions rather than embracing its Civil War past.

There was no grand vision to create a tourism package around Manassas’s historic sites, though many hope that is about to change.

“We call Gettysburg the mothership — the center of the universe for the Civil War,” said Ed Clark, the Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent. “It will probably always be the most-visited place, but there is a lot of opportunity for Manassas and the stories we have to tell.”

For the first time, historians and elected officials say, there’s a perfect confluence: Prince William supervisors and Manassas council members see the value of tourism and want to invest in their historic assets, a new leader is in charge of the visitors bureau, and a major anniversary of the war fought on Manassas soil is coming up.

“The 150th is our moment to turn the tide in terms of our tourism product,” said Ann Marie Maher, named last year as director of the Prince William County/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is our linchpin year and the only one we will have in our generation to have events that will capture the attention of the nation.”

The county is planning a four-day sesquicentennial event July 21-24. The main attraction: As many as 10,000 reenactors will descend on a farm adjacent to the battlefield to re-create the First Battle of Manassas. (Though huge, the reenactment will be about half the size Owen wanted.)

Officials say the event is a collaboration involving Historic Manassas Inc., the city of Manassas, Prince William County, the National Park Service and the convention and visitors bureau. The city and the county have budgeted about $1 million to support not only the July commemoration, but several smaller events leading up to it.

Volunteers, government employees and contractors have spent several years working to rehabilitate some of the 30-plus Prince William and Manassas historic sites that they see as hidden Civil War-era gems that help tell the story of the nation.

Some sites, including the Brentsville Courthouse, where the Prince William Cavalry was formed, have opened to the public. But crews are still putting the finishing touches on others, such as the Ben Lomond Historic Site, home to a Confederate hospital used after the first Manassas battle. A member of the Lee family passed away there, historians say.

Visiting the ‘mothership’

Manassas has faced an uphill struggle in the Civil War tourism game for decades, historians and tourism officials say. In Gettysburg, people began flocking to the smoldering battlefield the day the fighting ended, looking for loved ones or wanting to witness firsthand what had just happened.

Driving to Gettysburg up winding country roads, visitors know they are entering hallowed ground. Tourists are swept onto the battlefield through a new $100 million visitors center created through a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation.The museum features interactive displays, artifacts and the famous cyclorama — a 360-degree painting that depicts Pickett’s Charge. It immerses visitors in the battle and sets a somber tone.

The 6,000 acres are dotted with 1,300 monuments brought by states that had a stake in the war and by family and friends of those who fought. There are 155 licensed guides who tell stories that bring the battlefield to life.

The town of Gettysburg existed at the time of the war, and it now adds to tourists’ experience. Streets are lined with “sutler stores” and antique shops, bed and breakfasts, and buildings whose walls are still marked by bullet holes or cannon shells. People wander the town in period attire.

Over the decades, while Gettysburg and Adams County worked hard to enhance the visitor experience, Prince William area officials did not, historians and tourism officials say. Nor was there as big a push to protect the Manassas battlefield because it was surrounded mostly by farmland; nobody thought development would encroach. But it did, marching right up to the battlefield’s front gate.

When visitors come to the battlefield now, they pass strip malls and big-box stores. Roads heavily traveled by commuters cut through the park — not exactly setting the mood tourists want when visiting a hallowed place.

The 5,000 acres hold a quaint visitors center that could fit inside Gettysburg’s. Few monuments or historic buildings are on the battlefield. Because it was the site of two Confederate victories, there was not a lot of interest from the Northern states to commemorate what happened. And, Clark said, many Southern states did not have the money for memorials at the time. Only five guides and a handful of volunteers work there; Clark, the superintendent, is asking for $403,000 more in federal funding to enhance the guide program.

Still, steps from the visitors center, there’s a place where people can feel the ghosts of those who spilled their blood. The sounds of nearby Interstate 66 are muted, and visitors can see nothing but rolling, open land.

Manassas has tried to put its history on the map, starting 50 years ago when people gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First Battle. Because of poor planning, though, the event was a fiasco.

Historians estimate that 100,000 to 150,000 people came for a reenactment, but inadequate restrooms and roads made it a nightmare. The reenactment destroyed portions of the battlefield and is the reason Congress now prohibits such events on battlegrounds.

In the 1990s, officials tried again, this time leaning on Disney, which wanted to build “Disney’s America” — a history theme park — just outside the battlefield. Officials thought Disney would put the community and the battlefield on people’s radar, but many residents fought the plan, fearing desecration of the land. Disney walked away.

‘Once in a lifetime’

Tourism officials know that the pressure is on come July, and one of their biggest fears is traffic, especially for events that will compete with rush hour. They expect 50,000 visitors; the American Bus Association has named the county and city the No. 1 U.S. tour destination for 2011.

“What wakes you up at 2 in the morning is what if someone gets here — and it’s completely gridlock — and looks at this as a complete failure,” said Debbie Haight, director of the nonprofit Historic Manassas, which promotes Old Town Manassas.

It will be important not only to pull off a successful weekend, but to maintain the momentum the commemoration is expected to generate. Word of mouth will be a key marketing tool, tourism officials say, and they hope a successful event will encourage government officials to invest more in local historic assets.

“This is the time when the opportunity and our infrastructure meet . . . and at the end of this, we will have a better product than we have now,” said Prince William Historic Preservation Director Brendon Hanafin.

Playing off the excitement of the sesquicentennial, Corey A. Stewart, the Board of County Supervisors chairman, said he wants to begin branding Prince William as a military history corridor where people can stop at the battlefield, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the future American Wartime Museum. That attraction is scheduled to open in 2014 and cover every era of war from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said the county is also working to create what Gettysburg has: a Civil War-era town. There is an undeveloped strip outside the battlefield that the county envisions turning into a town center featuring period architecture and shops.

“There is a lot of pressure on the July event, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we need to take advantage of,” Stewart said. “Until a year ago, we hadn’t done a good job marketing the county as a tourist destination. But that is about to change. I hope this is the beginning of the rebirth of tourism here.”

UPCOMING EVENTS

Dozens of Civil War events are scheduled in the Manassas area between now and the July 21-24 anniversary. For complete listings, go to manassasbullrun.com, visitmanassas.org and nps.gov/mana.

July 21

Free day at
Manassas National Battlefield

6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas; opening ceremony: hands-on demonstrations, 3D photography, living history; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; manassasbullrun.com.

100th anniversary
of the National Jubilee of Peace

4 p.m. at Old Manassas Courthouse at the intersection of Grant and Lee avenues; parking at Prince William fairground; free; manassascivilwar.org.

Sesquicentennial concert

8 p.m. at Hylton Performing Arts Center,

10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas; Tickets $30-$60; 703-993-7550 or hyltoncenter.org.

July 21-24

Manassas Museu m

Living history, military demonstrations, music and crafts; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; free; 9101 Prince William St., Manassas; 703-361-6599 or manassascivilwar.org.

Camp Manassas

Military encampments, horse training, soap-making, period games; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Jennie Dean Historic site, 9601 Wellington Rd., Manassas; free; 703-361-6599 or manassascivilwar.org.

July 22

Manassas Civil War parade

10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Old Town Manassas, free; 703-361-6599, visitmanassas.org.

July 22-24

150th anniversary of
First Battle of Manassas

Battlefield tours, artillery demonstrations 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Quantico Marine Corps Band on July 23; $3 per person for a three-day pass; nps.gov.mana; tickets at manassasbullrun.com.

July 23-24

Reenactment of
the First Battle of Manassas

7 a.m. to 3 p.m.,Pageland Farm, Gainesville, Va.; parking at Jiffy Lube Live; tickets are up to $24; 703-396-7130 or manassasbullrun.com.

Bristoe Station Battlefield tours

11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 10709 Bristow Rd., Bristow; $5 , under 6 free; 703-792-5546 or www.pwcgov.org/historicsites.

July 23

Pringle House
Confederate Field Hospital

First-person interpretive program from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Ben Lomond Historic Site, 10321 Sudley Manor Rd., Manassas; $15, under 6 free; 703-367-7872 or pwcgov.org/historicsites; not appropriate for children younger than 11.

United Daughters of the
Confederacy wreath-laying

2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; 9027 Center St., Manassas; 703-368-1873 or manassasmuseum.org.

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