Saturday, July 23, 2011

"110 Degrees And I Just Got Chills:" Some Thoughts On The Manassas Sesquicentennial Commemoration

The Stonewall Jackson Statue Atop Henry House Hill On The Morning Of July 21, 2011

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At one point early yesterday afternoon, I overheard the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park tell one of the park's living history volunteers, clad in wool, that the National Weather Service stated that the past two days [July 21-22] were the two hottest consecutive days on the east coast since the 1920s.

. . .it certainly felt like it. The scorching temperatures and high humidity were the constant; the thread that ran through my two-and-a-half-day assignment at Manassas. Even at night there was no let-up. Leaving our shift on Thursday afternoon, Mannie noticed the temp was at a balmy 103 degrees, though the heat indices over the past two days climbed to near 120. It got so hot yesterday afternoon, that all afternoon outside programs were cancelled. I cannot even estimate how many gallons, yes, gallons of water and gatorade I drank, or how many times I soaked my handkerchief with cold water and placed it under my ranger hat. Within a matter of minutes each morning, sweat began to pour, and it continued to pour for the duration of our shifts. . .eleven hours Thursday, eight hours on Friday.

Still, despite all this. . .despite the heat, the humidity, and the sweat-soaked uniforms. . .I could think of nowhere else I would have rather been than on top of Henry House Hill on the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. It was a memorable experience and already ranks among the most rewarding of my short Park Service career.

Having left Bendersville around 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, my first stop was to pick up my colleague Mannie in Boonsboro. An hour and a half later, we arrived at Sudley Road. "It won't be long now," we thought, "we made some good time." Just a few miles south on Sudley Road, however, we ran into some traffic. . .and there we sat, twenty minutes to travel the final two miles. No bother. We knew it would be busy. Arriving about an hour before the staff briefing, we took some time to wander the fields surrounding the visitor center and to snap some photographs. I could not help but to think, "I am here, working for the park service on the 150th." It was a thought that stuck with me constantly over the next two days. Twenty-five years ago, had you told the seven-year-old me that I would be doing that, while I sat there reading the TimeLife Civil War series books or watching the Classic Images Production of the Manassas 125th Anniversary Reenactment, he never would have believed you.

After a forty-five minute meeting that lasted an hour and a half, we checked-in to our hotel then stepped out for a late bite to eat, which proved to be a bad idea for me, since it kept me awake until after midnight.

Four-and-a-half hours of sleep then it was up at 5:00; to my chagrin, the hotel's continental breakfast did not begin until 6:30. So it was off to the Manassas maintenance yard, where we reported for duty at 6:00 and where we received a ten-minute briefing, led by our friend and colleague Keith Snyder who was in charge of the Roving Interpretation for the event. I cannot thank Keith enough for assigning me to this duty; to be able to spend two days on Henry House Hill, roving between four interpretative stops, talking about the battle and its significance on the battle anniversary itself is something I will never forget.

The heat was already unbearable that early in the morning, but we stepped off and prepared for what promised to be a long, hot, but enjoyable and memorable day.

Rangers Keith and Mannie in the foreground and Ranger Brian in the back (a part of the Antietam contingent) are all smiles as the day began Thursday, July 21, 2011.

A photo of "Jackson's Line" at 6:30 a.m. 7/21/11. . .the temps were already in the low nineties

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Already the ground was alive with activity as the Park readied for the Commemoration Ceremony. Here, a camera man angles for the best shot.

Our first assignment was to greet visitors as they arrived and to direct them to their seats for the 9:00 a.m. ceremony. Many hundreds arrived, though I am sure the number would have been much, much higher had not the forecasted heat indices been in the triple-digits.

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Following the ceremony, most of the attendees returned to their vehicles, though the hardy remained. The afternoon walking tour program had nearly 300 in attendance, a remarkable number considering the heat. However, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event and, like me, those folks, dedicated students of the Civil War, would not have missed it.

For the duration of the day on Thursday and for eight hours on Friday, I had the great privilege of presenting informal interpretation to a number of park visitors. Strangely enough, even though it was hotter on Friday, there were actually more visitors and I made many more visitor contacts than on Thursday, the anniversary itself. I got to see some friendly faces, friends and fellow Civil War historians/enthusiasts. Robert Moore was there, as was Jared Frederick. I got a few minutes of conversation with John Hennessy from Fredericksburg, as well as Rob Schenk and Nicholas Redding from the Civil War Trust. I also had the great honor to work this event alongside some of the best the National Park Service has to offer including, of course, my interpretative colleagues at Antietam...Mannie, Keith Snyder, Brian Baracz, as well as Christie Stanczak and Christy Tew of Antietam's Education division, who did incredible work in preparing a Family/Youth Services tent with a myriad of excellent programs designed for children. I am sure that because of their efforts, many children walked away from this event with an increased interest in Civil War history. Who knows, but maybe a lifelong passion for some or many of these youngsters was triggered here.

In addition to Antietam, staff was brought in from throughout the region, and I had a great thrill to be able to work alongside the likes of Frank O'Reilly and Greg Mertz from Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, and Matt and Angie Atkinson from Gettysburg, all superb interpreters. It was further an honor to work, if just for a few days, along Manassas' outstanding staff.

Gettysburg's Matt Atkinson providing some "informal" interpretation to a group on the Henry House Hill Overlook. Mannie and I stood there, captivated, by Matt's great interpretative skills.

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Our assignment came to an end Friday afternoon at 2:00p.m. Ninety minutes later, we were back on the road, heading home after an incredible two-and-a-half days at Manassas. I will long remember the privilege I had to work at Manassas for part of its Sesquicentennial Commemoration, but a few things will stick out above the rest. I'll remember turning away from the Ceremony for a few moments with Keith to gaze toward Matthews' Hill around 10:30 a.m., both of us visualizing that it was there, on that hilltop, 150 years ago to the hour that the first major land battle of the Civil War commenced. I'll remember looking around and seeing dedicated visitors, braving the heat, to help commemorate the battle's anniversary and honor the battle's dead. But perhaps most of all, I will remember the comment a visitor made to me late Friday morning. Having begun the day at 8:00 a.m. and doing some roving interp over the next three and a half hours at the Robinson House site, the Henry House Overlook, and Jackson's Line, I was making my way to the lunch tent. But as I strode next to the Jackson Statue at the top of Henry House Hill, I was approached by two visitors who had a few questions. They were from Alabama and this was their second time to Manassas; they having traveled all that way specifically for the 150th. One gentleman asked me if I could point out where the 33rd Virginia was before their charge. I was glad to be able to answer him, pointing toward their position, and briefly describing their attack. Continuing, I talked about the terrible and terrific struggle that consumed Henry House Hill that Sunday afternoon, 150 years ago, and what it meant for the nation and how this struggle on this otherwise nondescript hilltop in northeastern Virginia would usher in four devastating, bloody years and help trigger a second revolution in the United States. "And all of it," I finished, "happened right here, on this very ground, 150 years ago."

One of the gentleman then turned to me and said, "It's 110 degrees, and I just got chills."

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Me, Matt Atkinson, and Mannie Gentile on Henry House Hill, 7/22/2011


Anonymous said...


Glad you enjoyed your time at Manassas. I reluctantly cancelled my hotel reservations and stayed home in an air-conditioned environment. For all the interpretive rangers at Antietam this will be a great learning experience for the 150th next year. I only hope that we’ll be blessed with cooler weather.


Glenn A. Haman

Jerseyman said...

I'm a reenactor with the 3rdNJVI. We portrayed the 69th NYSM for the weekend, and I had the privilege of being in the color guard. Odd, but I said the same exact thing on Sun am- I got chills!

I attended several of the Park Service events fri and sat. Had the great thrill of hearing Ed Bearss speak, and I just want to send my compliments to the Park Service and all the volunteers and presenters. You did a great job with logistics as well as the programs.

I'm 60, so I was turned on to a love of our heritage by the Centennial. it was a special thrill to take part in the Sesquicentennial. I had many wonderful interactions with spectators and park guests, and I can tell you, they were thrilled as well.

Great job!