Touring Bull Run - The Manassas Battlefield - My Family Travels

History comes to life at the Manassas battlefield in northern Virginia where National Park Rangers and an excellent interpretive center illuminate the origins of the American Civil War.

The Stone Bridge at the Bull Run battlefield site in Manassas, Virginia.
Cross the Stone Bridge at the Manassas Battlefield site to relive major battles from the Civil War.

A few years back, Disney unveiled plans to turn a chunk of northern Virginia land into an American history theme park. Although doomed from the start, the proposed project did manage to raise the profile of the adjacent Manassas National Battlefield Park. This place is the site of the Civil War’s first major battle, known as the Battle of Bull Run or First Manassas.

Popular with school groups, locals and military buffs, a visit to the park is a good way to stoke some interest among kids in that fateful part of our nation’s history.

Touring the Manassas Battlefield as Bull Run Comes to Life

A 19th century sketch of the Deep Cut Monument at Manassas, Virginia.
This 19th-century sketch of the Deep Cut Monument is part of the collection at the Henry Hill Visitors Center at the NPS Bull Run site in Manassas, Virginia.

Nine-year-old Jamie recently studied the Civil War in fourth grade and frankly knows more about the topic than his parents. During our recent visit, as the Park Ranger led a group on the 30-minute tour of the battlefield, Jamie quietly provided me additional colorful commentary.

Jamie: “General Burnside had hair that came down on his face, and that’s where the word sideburns comes from.”

Me: “Oh. Thank you, Jamie.”

Rangers present an overview of the horrendous battle and explain how both the North and South came to understand that the war would not be won in a single battle. Kids then are free to climb onto the cannons and munitions wagons lined up on the Manassas Battlefield.

Many families take walking tours of the battle sites. Daily tours are led by NPS Rangers who focus on either the First Battle or the Second Battle. There are also more than 40 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails. Take the self-guided driving tour with 12 stops that bring history to life for the mobility-impaired. Download the American Battlefield Trust’s free audioguide to enhance the experience at each stop.

Manassas Battlefield Visitors Centers

This metal plaque is the Bartow Monument on Henry Hill at Manassas, Virginia.
Park Rangers bring artifacts like the Bartow Monument on Henry Hill to life as they recount tales of the Manassas Battlefield.

To get another perspective on the battle and the battlefield, the Henry Hill Visitors Center has hourly shows of the 45-minute film, “An End of Innocence,” a reenactment of the death and mayhem that battle brings. Narrated by Richard Dreyfus, the film is not particularly gory, but it may be a bit frightening for younger kids. If it’s age-appropriate, seeing the film before heading out on the battlefield likely will help kids understand the Ranger’s talk about complicated troop movements and battles.

The Henry Hill visitors center’s small museum displays all sorts of battle paraphernalia that Jamie particularly enjoyed, from artillery shells to uniforms. At the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center (closed in winter), there’s another electronic map that illustrates troop movements during the two key battles. The restored farmstead has exhibits about the Second Manassas Battlefield as well as a gift shop that will drive Civil War buffs wild. Like other National Parks, kids can purchase the Junior Ranger booklet and receive a patch after completing a scavenger hunt-like series of activities.

Jamie spent more than two hours at the Park happily reviewing his history lessons before he became focused on food. Since we live close by, we can return at our leisure but depending on their interest, other families easily could spend much of the day touring the battlefields and exhibits.

Trip Planning Details for a Manassas Getaway

The Park is located on Route 236 north of Interstate 66, 25 miles west of Washington, DC. The National Park site is open every day during daylight and the Visitors Center is open daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 8:30am-5pm. Check out www.nps.gov/mana for dates of special living history reenactments, such as artillery demonstrations, and general information.

Note that there is no food or drink service available at Manassas National Battlefield Park, although there are many picnic tables. The site is six miles from old town Manassas, a charming, redeveloped downtown with interesting restaurants, shops and grocery stores, and a choice of numerous chain restaurants and hotels is even closer.

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