Taps sounded across the quiet crest of Henry Hill on Thursday as dragonflies buzzed in the heat and perspiring visitors stood to salute the long-dead soldiers whose struggle there helped create the modern United States.
With a giant statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson glinting in the sun, bystanders in shorts and dignitaries in suits doffed their hats as bugle notes signaled the start of four days of commemorations of the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run.
It was the conflict’s first major battle, the start of fighting “in earnest,” as one historian put it, and Thursday was its 150th anniversary.
The commemoration is scheduled to culminate in two huge reenactments outside town, Saturday and Sunday. More than 8,500 reenactors, many of whom are already assembled in a large, 1861-style encampment, are expected. A parade of reenactors is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday in Manassas.
All this is playing out amid some of the hottest weather of the summer — hotter even than in 1861, one scholar said.
Despite the weather, and a few traffic backups, Thursday was a solemn day on Henry Hill.
There, scores of Union and Confederate soldiers were killed in the closing hours of the battle, when Northern troops were outflanked and began their humiliating flight back to Washington.
There, in a way, began the real travail of the war — a conflict that would become long and bloody, yet one that would give birth to a new nation free of the outrage of slavery, historians have said.
“Even as Moses was commanded to remove the sandals from his feet, because the place where he stood was holy ground,” the Rev. Dennis Lipke, of the nearby Sudley United Methodist Church, told the audience. “So also do we acknowledge with bowed heads and humble hearts the sacredness of these . . . fields.”
“On this very day 150 years ago, many thousands of patriot soldiers marched bravely into . . . battle,” he said. “Their blood is the seed of our free nation today.”
About 1,000 men on both sides, combined, died in the battle, which in the South often is called the Battle of Manassas.
The Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865, claimed more than 600,000 lives — 2 percent of the population then. Today, a roughly equivalent loss would mean 6 million dead, historians have said.
The morning ceremony was hosted by the National Park Service. A crowd of about 100 braved the heat outside the Henry Hill Visitor Center to hear Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and other VIPs speak about the meaning of the battle.
Visitors sat on lawn chairs in sweat-soaked T-shirts, fanned themselves with brochures, and gulped bottles of spring water. Some brought beach umbrellas. A few wore folded American and Confederate flags beneath their baseball caps to keep out the sun.
Many sported T-shirts testifying to their fascination with the war. One shirt bore a portrait of Gen. Jackson.
Another declared, “Rebel Son.” Another simply read, “Civil War Buff.”
University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers, the keynote speaker, said the Union’s defeat in the battle was providential.
“We are all fortunate that the battle fought here did not, as so many hoped and expected, begin and end the Civil War,” he said.
“The irony is that because [the North lost the battle] the war is able to continue long enough to make it necessary for the Union to attack slavery as a foundation for the Confederate cause,” he said in an interview.
“If the North had won at Manassas, and the Confederacy had given up, what might have happened?” he asked. “Well, you might have had some kind of compromise” which could have restored the Union with slavery protected.
“The significance of this battle, in other words, radiates far beyond the boundaries of this park and far beyond the limits of the single day in which it shattered this landscape,” he said in his address.
Among those in the audience were Helen and Peter Evans, Realtors from Falls Church, who had brought lawn chairs and a beach umbrella.
“I could come to tears thinking about what actually happened here,” said Helen Evans, 60. “This is hallowed ground. This is something that’s in our heritage. It’s in our blood. You get goose bumps just remembering.”
“What drove people to go through such sacrifices to save our nation?” she wondered. “When now we're kind of lackadaisical. . . . If I could get half the courage that these people had, it would be incredible.”
Nearby, a group of reenactors clad in wool and cotton period uniforms set up a small demonstration camp.
Among them was Bob Brewer, 51, a construction inspector from Gaithersburg, who was dressed as a Confederate private in heavy pants, suspenders, and a brown, broad-brimmed hat.
Asked how he felt about being at Henry Hill on the battle’s anniversary, he said: “It’s a humbling honor. I don’t have more words than that.”