MANASSAS, Va. — It was Manassas where the greatest army ever assembled in North America first gave battle 150 years ago.
It was Manassas where a Confederate colonel earned one of the most enduring nicknames in American history.
And it was Manassas where Americans in both the North and the South came to the grim realization that their conflict was destined to be a long, bloody Civil War.
On Thursday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and others commemorated the 150th anniversary of Civil War's first major land battle, gathering on the hill on Manassas National Battlefield Park where much of the battle was fought.
“The nation got its first real look at civil war,” said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, which maintains the battlefield. “It dispelled the notion that this war would be a quiet affair.”
Up until then, both sides expected the war to be settled quickly, perhaps with a single battle.
The North, with its superior numbers and industrial might, thought it could deliver a knockout blow at Manassas and end the war quickly by marching on to the Confederate capital in Richmond, less than 100 miles away. The South thought a strong showing in defense of its native soil would convince the Yankees that preserving the union by force was a fool's errand.
Union forces held an early advantage in the battle, but the Confederates turned the tide in part due to the unyielding stance of Col. Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who earned the name “Stonewall” in the course of the fighting. Once the Confederates turned the tide, the battle turned into a rout, and spectators who had come out to view the battle in what they imagined would be a picnic-like setting found themselves caught in a wild Union retreat.
After the fighting in Manassas, Abraham Lincoln put out a new call for volunteers — this time asking for three years of service rather than three months — setting the stage for the roll call of bloody battles to follow over the next four years from Antietam, to Gettysburg, to Chancellorsville to Appomattox, with hundreds of other battles in between.
Manassas was important strategically as a vital railroad junction. Its tracks carried people and supplies to and from Richmond, said University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, a Civil War expert who gave a keynote speech at Thursday's commemoration.
The fighting was marred by confusion — the initial Confederate flag looked just like the U.S. flag, and militia with more than 200 different uniforms converged at the battle, making it difficult for each side to know who was friend and who was foe amid the billowing smoke of combat.
“You need to imagine immense confusion, with mistakes and failures and brilliance and bravery all swirled together,” Ayers said.
Thursday's ceremony drew nearly 1,000 spectators, who listened among costumed re-enactors in the sweltering heat.
Tom Moncrief of Monroe, N.C., attended with his son, Christopher, and his mother-in-law. He said they are trying to attend most of the major Civil war commemorations over the next year as part of Christopher's home schooling.
“You're able to see the re-enactors, ask them questions. ... They're bringing history to life,” Moncrief said.
Brandon Bies, a National Park Service ranger at Arlington House, Robert E. Lee's Virginia home, said the 150th anniversary has brought increased interest from the general public, which he said is more knowledgeable about the conflict than ever before.
The 35,000 Union troops under Gen. Irvin McDowell had been the largest Army ever assembled on the continent at that time, Bies said, taking on a Confederate force that swelled to about 32,000 by the time the battle was fully engaged. As massive as those armies were, they were dwarfed by the numbers of forces at later battles. Gettysburg, for instance, had a combined 165,000 soldiers and about 50,000 casualties, compared to 67,000 soldiers and 5,000 casualties at First Manassas.
Thursday's events start a weekend of activity, including a battle re-enactment this weekend. Organizers believe the various events could draw nearly 150,000 spectators. The battle re-enactments Saturday and Sunday will be held on a farm near the battlefield site; the Park Service does not allow battle re-enactments on its property.