The First Battle of Bull Run, known as First Manassas to the Confederate Army — because the South preferred to name engagements after nearby towns, not rivers, streams or creeks — was the first major battle of the American Civil War. In fact, the United States Army, it was assumed, would squash the Rebel rabble quickly and mercifully before the Southern insurrection got out of hand.
Unfortunately for the Union Troops, history proved otherwise.
On the warm morning of July 21, 1861, the two huge armies collided in the fields of Manassas and, for the greater part of that day, they swung back and forth at each other with gusto. Some of Washington’s more privileged families even turned out to picnic and watch what they assumed would be the rout of the Rebel forces. However, by the end of the day, the Yankees were in full retreat back to the District. The North’s exodus was further complicated when the local roads became congested with the picnickers who had come in from the capital.
When the dust settled, Bull Run was the bloodiest battle in American history at that time.
Fourteen months later, the Blue and the Gray duked it out once again at Manassas. And, once again, the South emerged victorious.
Today, Manassas National Battlefield Park has 5,000 acres of rolling fields and forests. Trails of all shapes and sizes connect history lovers to the various plaques and statues that pepper these two battlefields. As a result, this network of pathways makes Manassas Battlefield arguably one of the best places to run in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Although, it’s a pleasant place to run throughout the year, it’s perhaps best appreciated in the fall, when the leaves are turning, the air begins to feel cool and cross country might be on your mind. There are plenty of trails that meander through these hallowed grounds, but the following 5.5-mile loop gives a good flavor of what the park has to offer. Horses (and their riders) share some of the trails at the park and it’s advised to give them ample space. In fact, always ask a rider if it’s okay to pass before attempting to do so.
Park at the Henry Hill Visitor Center (approximately 20-miles southwest of the Capital Beltway) located off Sudley Road. The building, which opens daily at 8:30am, has bathrooms and a water fountain outside. Once your shoes are laced, begin your run by heading northeast towards the giant equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson — you can’t miss it! Just yards away, during First Manassas, Confederate General Bernard Bee reportedly gave the southern icon his famous nickname after allegedly watching Jackson and his men standing firm, like a “stone wall,” against a Union advance.
From here, hook a right and follow the First Manassas Trail towards the woods. This is the path you will follow for the entire run. It’s relatively shaded and the thick forest provides good cover for deer, turkey and fox. In a half mile the trail comes to a “T.” Make a left, run downhill and then use a footbridge to cross a small creek. Approximately one mile into your run, you will emerge into an open field.
Continue to follow the trail across Route 29 (Lee Highway), but look both ways before you cross, because motorists aren’t often expecting runners here. Pass through a barrier and ascend up a hill. Once you’ve reached the top of the hill, hook a sharp right, near the Van Pelt House Site marker, descend and follow signs, and a boardwalk, to the Stone Bridge, which spans Bull Run. The original bridge was destroyed during the First Battle of Manassas, but this replacement has become one of the most iconic locations in the park to visit and it’s often frequented by photographers snapping engagement pictures.
Don’t cross the bridge. Instead, turn left and follow the trail alongside Bull Run. Eventually, you’ll hit a hill. Surge up it and emerge, at mile 2.5, into yet another open field. Follow the trail across the field until you reach an intersection, approximately three miles into the run. The road to the right leads to a great trail, but to keep things simple run through the intersection towards the woods and follow the trail until you emerge at a small parking lot along Sudley Road — take note in case you want to return and start your run at an alternative location next time you come to the park.
Continue to follow the First Manassas Trail southeast in the direction of your parked car. As soon as you crest the slight incline, you will see the Henry Hill Visitor Center in the distance — approximately one mile away. From here on out, the trail resembles a championship cross country course as it descends towards the Stone House, which served as a hospital during both battles, and back to the parking lot. Cross Route 29 near the intersection of Sudley then negotiate your way across a small bridge. Once you’re safely on the other side, begin an arduous climb towards the Henry House. Continue straight to reach the Visitor Center, and your car. If you’re still hankering for a mile or two, make a left at Stonewall’s statue and loop back around the field.
The aforementioned route is just a small sample of what the park has to offer. If you plan accordingly, you can run triple this distance without much repetition, but Manassas is a great place to run without an intended route and, since you’re never too far from a major road, you never have to worry about getting lost.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of RunWashington.