After dark had come, the cries of men fighting for their lives burst from the field hospitals, and the glow of distant lanterns floated over the battlefield.
As men picked their way among the bodies, looking for wounded on that night nearly 150 years ago, it must have seemed that only the very fortunate had survived unscathed the carnage of the Second Battle of Bull Run.
On Saturday, people again sought out the fields around Manassas, searching for insight into the bloody Civil War battle and marking its sesquicentennial.
The battle from Aug. 28 to 30, 1862, was spread over the same ground as a major clash a year earlier. The second was much deadlier, although both were triumphs for the Confederacy.
The annals of the Civil War contain any number of major turning points, conflicts with bold-faced names such as Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg. But it was Second Bull Run — or Second Manassas, as the battle came to be known in the South — that sparked the events that led several weeks later to the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Last year’s commemoration of the First Battle of Bull Run featured thousands of spectators and reenactors who perspired through soaring temperatures on a hot day in July. Saturday’s events, under cloudy skies, were much more low-key. There was no full-scale reenactment of the battle, but reenactors participated in an artillery demonstration and other displays to mark the occasion.
It was one of the South’s great victories. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army outmaneuvered and outfought the army of Union Gen. John Pope, opening the door for the Confederacy’s first major incursion into Union territory in the East.
The battle allowed Lee to “in a sense, bring the war to the Union Army rather than defend the Confederate capital [Richmond],” said John Reid, a National Park Service historian.
Emboldened, Lee launched his ill-fated invasion of Maryland, which crested at Antietam two weeks later. Lee’s setback there, at Sharpsburg, gave President Abraham Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a major turning point of the war.
What brought many of the hundred or so families to the battlefield Saturday was the artillery and cavalry show.
After reenactors explained how the ancient-looking cannons worked, they fired thundering blanks that reverberated down the valley and into surprised ear drums.
One young visitor knew immediately his favorite scenes of the day. “The rifles,” said Jefferson Baird, 7, of Fairfax County. “Horses,” he added.
Jenni Baird, his mother, said that she wants her children to grow up with a sense of history and that the battlefields in the Washington area provide rich examples.
“It’s mostly just so sad to me,” she said of the Civil War. “It wasn’t like the evil side against the good side so much.”
Reenactor Rob Griesbach of Ellicott City, who portrayed a Confederate soldier, said that people often come to see the old weapons, ammunition and horsemen but that they leave with a better understanding of the war’s complexity.
“We try to show that the war is [about] more than just slavery,” Griesbach said. “Each soldier had a totally different reason for enlisting.” He added: “They fought for their kids. They didn’t fight for themselves.”
The scene Saturday was straight out of a faded daguerreotype photo. Bearded men in full uniform sprawled on ground cloths, campfires smoldered as fragrant pipe smoke filled the air.
Although the uninitiated might wonder at the scene — and at men who in some cases paid upward of $1,000 in total for exact replicas of wool uniforms and .54-caliber muskets — the reenactors said the details help them show who the soldiers were.
Garry Adelman, the director of history and education at the preservation group Civil War Trust, said he draws larger lessons from the Second Battle of Bull Run.
One Confederate soldier, holding a lantern during a night search for the wounded, discovered his son wounded and crying in a ditch, Adelman recounted.
The boy didn’t want his father to think that he was crying because he had been shot, Adelman said. So he told his father that he had been stung by bees.
Moments later, he died in his father’s arms.
“It speaks to the most elusive [of] Civil War concepts,” Adelman said. “The concept of honor.”