THE GOOD NEWS around Manassas in the late 1850s was that the little country town's homemade railroad was finally linked with the nation's growing railway network, and prosperity was sure to follow.

That also turned out to be the bad news. When the Civil War came a few years later, Manassas Junction's connections to all points of the compass became a strategic focus of both sides. The business boom died as the cannons roared; vast armies ravaged the countryside until scarcely a stick or a brick was left standing -- with most of the damage done by Southern soldiers.

The bloody battles and spectacular raids made Manassas famous for all time, but left the little town frozen in history. Life went on after the war, but hardly anybody outside Prince William County noticed.

There was a lot going on, as visitors to the new $1.7 million Manassas Museum soon learn. Founded as a community effort to seek out and preserve the whole history of the area, the museum has hopped and skipped around town for years, but now has a handsome and permanent red-brick home. It stands on ground that once was a Manahoac Indian camp and later a federal fort, and overlooks the old railroad depot that used to handle 40 trains a day.

The museum's no mere booster organization. It adheres to the standards of the American Association of Museums and presents even-handed and unblinking accounts of slavery as well as pioneering, of hard times as well as the enduring prosperity that finally came. The enduring irony, of course, is that prosperity didn't follow the iron horse but the growth of the national government the Yankees enforced.