Stand by the Stonewall Jackson statue at Manassas National Battlefield Park and it’s easy to summon a mental picture of the scene 150 years ago Thursday when North and South fought the first major battle of the Civil War.
Grassy hills and forest dominate the landscape, as they did in 1861. Apart from the low-standing Visitors Center, modernity does not intrude. No high-rise buildings or cellphone towers mar the horizon.
For this pastoral vista, we thank decades of preservation campaigns that repeatedly fought suburban sprawl around the park. This resistance — which defeated economic powerhouses like the Marriott and Disney corporations and Fairfax developer Til Hazel — attracted national attention and inspired others.
In fact, specialists view the efforts to protect Manassas (also known as Bull Run) as the cradle of the modern battlefield preservation movement in America.
“Our origins essentially go back to that fight to protect that property, which ultimately was protected,” said Jim Campi, policy and communications director of the Civil War Trust.
In its latest victory, announced Wednesday, the trust helped arrange for the addition of 54 acres to the federal park. Most of the land was donated by Service Corporation International, a Texas funeral services company that agreed to forgo expanding a cemetery it owns by the battlefield.
The preservation struggle is not complete, and probably never will be. As long as suburbia and congestion grow in Prince William County, the activists will be called to further action.
“There’s always going to be tremendous development pressures right outside the boundaries of the park. It’s how we address those pressures that will ultimately decide how the park looks 10, 20, 30 years from now,” Campi said.
The most obvious current problem is familiar. Even the heralded preservationists at Manassas haven’t been able to stave off Northern Virginia traffic.
For a glimpse of the challenge, just stroll a couple hundred yards from the Jackson statue to Henry House, another battlefield landmark.
From there, looking north, one sees cars and trucks waiting at the stoplight at the intersection of Lee Highway (Route 29) and Sudley Road (Route 234), smack in the middle of the park. At rush hour, the backups often extend more than two miles.
The vehicles are annoying, both because they’re eyesores and because they make it hard for visitors to get around. It’s especially a headache for anybody attempting the 18-mile driving tour to see the terrain of Second Manassas, fought on the same site 13 months after the first encounter.
“Hardly anybody finishes the thing, because you have to fight the traffic,” Park Superintendent Ed Clark said.
Clark and some preservationists would like to expand existing roads and build new ones outside the park to route traffic around the battlefield. A full bypass would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, however, and the state already lacks money for roads of higher priority.
Moreover, many people who’ve supported preservation at Manassas are not typically enthusiastic about building new highways. One such skeptic is Page Snyder, daughter of legendary Manassas preservationist Annie Snyder.
Until her death in 2002, “Stonewall Annie” Snyder was for three decades the driving force behind campaigns to defend the battlefield. To honor her mother’s memory, Page is allowing the reenactment of First Manassas on Saturday and Sunday to take place on the family’s 200-acre farm next to the park. (The Park Service won’t allow use of the actual site; it said “never again” after reenactors caused so much damage there at the 100th anniversary.)
Page said she understood the need to reduce traffic inside the park, but she worries that new highways would fuel unwanted development. “I do not trust our process to protect the rural crescent as it should be protected,” Snyder said.
Despite the traffic, the overall preservation story at Manassas is one of success.
“Manassas is rightfully proud that you can stand in certain portions of that battlefield and really feel that you are there,” said Joan Zenzen, a Rockville historian who’s finishing her fourth book on battlefield preservation.
Clark said business interests and politicians are more sympathetic to preservation than they were in the past — or at least more wary of tangling over the issue.
“Companies don’t want to have their names splattered around in negative tones,” Clark said. As for politicians, “Even if they don’t have the goodness of preservation in their hearts, they understand the value of tourism.”
That’s a legacy Annie Snyder’s political heirs will need to defend just as she protected that bucolic view from the Jackson statue.
I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).