In a bustling Northern Virginia, what are now quiet, peaceful fields tucked away in Manassas were once the starting point of one of the most divisive events in American history. Imagine early in the morning, as the sun peacefully rose and the fog quietly dissipated from the wet grass, the day began with a loud BOOM that signified the start of the first Battle of Manassas – or Bull Run—on July 21, 1861. Everyone thought it was going to be a short, decisive battle that would determine the future of the United States. People were passionate, patriotic, and excited to take part in this momentous event. So much so that even spectators wanted to witness what would become one of the bloodiest days in history to that point.


It is said that picnickers from Washington D.C. made it all the way to the battlefield where they got tangled in with the opposing armies. However, the majority of them were about eight miles away in the town of Centreville on the heights where they could easily see the moving armies on the farm fields below in between the smoke of gunfire. One soldier near Centreville named Captain John Tidball remarked on the people he saw:

They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback and even on foot. Apparently, everything in the shape of vehicles in and around Washington had been pressed into service for the occasion. It was Sunday and everybody seemed to have taken a general holiday; that is all the male population, for I saw none of the other sex there, except a few huckster women who had driven out in carts loaded with pies and other edibles. All manner of people were represented in this crowd, from the gravest and noble senators to hotel waiters.


As the battle progressed, the day got more and more chaotic as both the armies and onlookers realized that this was not going to be a quick and easy war. By the end of the battle and the Union retreat, soldiers were frantically making their way towards the safety of Washington D.C. only to run into the civilians watching the day’s events from the hill.  The Civil War had begun and it would be another four years of fighting where North was against South, brother against brother.


Experience your own spectator event at Manassas Battlefield National Park where costumed guides will hop on your “vehicle” and take you through the hallowed ground that started a war and into the events that would shape the people and places we see today.  Much like the spectators who witnessed the battle, the journey can include a picnic lunch or historically themed snacks as your historical tour explores such places as the Stone House, Henry Hill, where General “Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous nickname and more!

Small Tour Group at Manassas National Battlefield


Book Your Spectator Tour of Manassas National Battlefield.

For additional information or to schedule a tour, please contact the Prince William County Historic Preservation at