Manassas events focus on the human face of the Civil War

August 19, 2013

The major Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration drew thousands to the Manassas National Battlefield Park two years ago, reinvigorating public and scholarly interest in one of the nation’s most pivotal moments.

Last year’s events, centered on the Second Battle of Manassas, were notably smaller. Historians worry that with no major anniversary on the horizon, crowds will wane and interest drop off.

So, this year’s events will take different approach, exploring the war in more intimate detail. How intimate? Civil War scholar James I. “Bud” Robertson asks: “Why did Lincoln wear a beard?” He’ll answer that and other questions during a program Friday to next Sunday hosted by Manassas and Historic Manassas Inc.

Robertson’s recent book, “The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War,” focuses on the war’s emotional side, he said. Too many scholars, he said, look at the Civil War and see red lines and blue lines.

“I see lines of young men, facing nightmares,” Robertson, who is one of the nation’s best-known Civil War historians and a Virginia Tech professor, said.

The book is drawn from seven years of material that Robertson gathered for a popular NPR segment sharing simple, anecdotal tales. No larger truths are necessarily revealed, Robertson said.

There’s the story of the two Maryland brothers who fought on opposite sides and died in the same battle. Of soldiers throwing down their weapons in the heat of battle to bury a small dog.

“It brings the war to life,” Robertson said of such human-scale stories. “Too many academic historians forget . . . [the Civil War is] a living thing. It’s a story of human beings. There’s far more to it than the excitement of a reenactment.”

Don Hakenson, a Civil War author who is scheduled to speak in conjunction with the Manassas events, agreed.

“I’ve been studying the Civil War . . . my whole life,” he said. “I guess I’d like to learn more about the simple solider, not the generals and the colonels, but the privates and the sergeants.”

Doug Horhota, education coordinator for the Manassas Museum, organized this year’s weekend events. He said he plans to shift future commemorations’ focus away from the battle itself, from “coming, shooting guns and going home” to the individuals involved.

At Liberia Plantation, for example, reenactors will depict the plight of the newly freed slaves.

“They have absolutely no possessions,” Horhota said. “The challenge that’s faced by African Americans . . . is, ‘Now what do we do?’ ”

On Saturday, officials will commemorate a raid just before the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run. Confederate troops led by Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson found a lightly guarded supply train and gorged themselves on the bounty, which included canned lobster, brandy and champagne. Ragged boots replaced new brogans on ailing feet. The troops burned the rail cars when they were done pillaging. A rail car will be burned to commemorate the occasion, Horhota said.

Robertson said he hopes those who attend the weekend’s events remain intrigued by the war’s stories. As for Lincoln, it wasn’t a rugged, cabin-building past or an old scar that made him grow a beard while he campaigned in 1860. It was an 11-year-old girl who told him, “You know you’re a very ugly man,” Robertson said. She thought he might be more appealing to voters if he grew a beard.

“It doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the wheels of history,” Robertson said. Still, it makes for a good tale.

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