National Park Service Struggles to Restore and Protect Historic Sightlines at Manassas National Battlefield Park

Henry Hill at Manassas National Battlefield Park, with federal gun, Henry House, and red brick monument erected by federal soldiers after the battle. Some sightlines that should be open like this one are now obscured by trees that didn’t exist during the Civil War.
Photo by Bethany L King via Flickr.

The First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) was fought near Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861. The Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas) was fought over nearly the same ground during August 28-30, 1862. Now officials at Manassas National Battlefield Park are fighting to restore the battlefield’s Civil War era sightlines and protect them from encroaching development.

The two battles commemorated at the 5,100-acre park, both Confederate victories, were fought less than 30 miles southwest of our nation’s capital in an area of northern Virginia that has experienced tremendous economic growth over the past few decades. Fast-growing Prince William and Fairfax counties are now so heavily developed that green space and large trees have become comparatively scarce in many areas. Locals fear that few mature trees will be left unless development is checked and strict tree protection ordinances are enforced.

Given that area residents have become very protective of the remaining mature trees, it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a public outcry when the National Park Service made plans to cut down numerous trees at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in order to restore some of the most important historic sightlines. Many trees have been removed already, but some residents and county officials continue to grumble that the Park Service has let the need for historical authenticity trump the need for mature trees and the many benefits they produce.

New park superintendent Ed Clark, who took over at Manassas Battlefield less than three months ago, has inherited a very difficult set of problems and a tight budget (only $2.7 million a year). Though improving historic sightlines is certainly not the only big issue on Supt. Clark’s plate, it is one of the important ones.

Restoring historic sightlines in the Civil War battlefield parks has been a Park Service goal for many years. As Civil War buffs are keenly aware, many areas that had an open character at the time the battles took place are now mantled with trees or thickets after nearly a century and a half of unchecked or poorly managed vegetative growth. (Of course, the opposite is also true; some battlefield areas that were groves or thickets in the early 1860s now offer unobstructed views.)

When properly planned, tree removal projects can allow the public to experience views quite similar to those that commanders and combatants had at the time of the battles. Visitors to the battlefield can thereby gain a better understanding of the military strategies and tactical decisions that were based on the Civil War era sightlines.

At popular Manassas National Battlefield Park (annual visitation ca. 900,000), the National Park Service has deemed the removal of trees and woodlands from certain parts of the battlefield to be vital to the purpose for which the national park was designated. As the Park Service has pointed out, “The purpose of Manassas National Battlefield Park is to preserve the historic landscape containing historic sites, buildings, objects, and views which contribute to the national significance of the First and Second Battles of Manassas, for the use, inspiration, and benefit of the public” (italics are mine).

The park’s General Management Plan – currently being revised -- called for clearing approximately 140 acres of timber between Brawner Farm and Deep Cut in the northeastern corner of the park. A 30-page environmental assessment explained the procedure, pointing out that:

Historically this area was open pastureland. However, through the years this area has not been maintained and the current vegetation consists of a mix of mature Basic Oak-Hickory Forest interspersed with Virginia Pine-Eastern Red Cedar Successional Forest…..These non-historic woodlands directly impact interpretation of the battles, as the lines of sight that dictated troop movements and patterns are blocked by the woodland. More specifically, these non-historic woodlands directly impact interpretation of the Second Battle of Manassas, especially the fighting that occurred on August 28 and August 30, 1862 The battle lines on the evening of August 28 stretched from the Brawner Farm to the Dogan Farm. The fighting was almost entirely on open ground, on areas that are now wooded.

Likewise, the woodlands obstruct historic lines of sight and corresponding fields of fire important to understanding the nature of the fighting on the afternoon of August 30. This is one of the few battles of the Civil War where Confederate artillery dominated the field. Over 30 guns belonging to Shumaker’s and S.D. Lee’s artillery battalions were concentrated on Douglas Heights. Another four guns of Chapman’s Dixie Artillery delivered a destructive raking fire from Battery Heights onto the Dogan Farm. The Confederate gunners had a clear field of fire all the way to the Groveton-Sudley Road. Fitz John Porter’s Union attack failed largely because of this heavy concentration of Confederate artillery fire. It is difficult for visitors to comprehend the advantage of the Confederate position with the woodlands blocking those historic views.

After the proposed tree clearing was thoroughly vetted, the bulk of the “non-historic” obscuring woodlands were removed last fall. This opened up some of the battlefield’s historic sightlines, but by no means all of them.

Work continues. Supt. Clark explained that some additional smaller cuts will be needed, and that recent severe storms created a lot of debris that will have to be gradually cleared over a period of several months.

Not everyone agrees that the tree-clearing project should have been undertaken at the Manassas Battlefield. Some area residents and elected officials have expressed anger or deep concern about the removal of trees at the park. Critics believe that trees – especially mature ones -- are just too scarce and valuable in that part of Virginia to be sacrificed in the name of historical authenticity.

The tree removal project at Manassas NBP is part of a larger campaign to restore and protect battlefield sightlines in Civil War parks throughout the National Park System. One project that has received excellent reviews restored 1863 sightlines in critical areas of the battlefield at Vickburg National Military Park. Another ambitious project removed nearly 600 acres of trees at Gettysburg National Military Park to restore historic sightlines.

The Park Service understands that cutting down trees in national parks is bound to upset a lot of people, especially in places like Northern Virginia where development has obliterated mature trees on a wholesale basis. Accordingly, park officials make special efforts to explain their actions and provide opportunities for citizen input to the decision-making process.

In the case of sightlines restoration at Manassas National Battlefield Park, locals could do little more than vent their frustration.

Another concern at Manassas and other Civil War battlefield parks is encroaching development that obscures historic sightlines. Some battlefield parks, such as Fredericksburg and & Spotsylvania National Military Park, are almost completely surrounded by development and exist as historic islands in a modern milieu. In such cases, historic sightlines extend only as far as the park boundary.

At Manassas National Battlefield Park, researchers extensively photographed and mapped the battlefield over a period of months to help identify sightline issues extending beyond park borders. The study group selected 25 lookouts, including the 10 most pivotal ones to visitors, which they will attempt to preserve from new construction of roads, office parks and apartment buildings. The $60,000 study (set for completion at the end of the year) will serve as a guide for future development that may limit the heights of buildings and mandate the planting of trees to block eyesores.

In the course of a recent interview, Supt. Brown told me that even though incremental private development accounts for most of the present and potential external threats to the park’s sightlines, some threats are in the form of large-scale projects initiated by publicly-regulated utilities. Two immediate threats of this kind are a proposed power transmission line upgrade along the park boundary and a proposed electrical power generating plant to be built nearby.

Dominion Virginia Electric, one of America’s top ten investor-owned utilities, has petitioned the Virginia State Corporation Commission to build an electrical power transmission line which will ultimately extend some 240 miles through southern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The project, which will entail building metal towers rising up to 15 stories high, will impact numerous historic sites. Among them are several Civil War sites, including Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park and Manassas National Battlefield Park.

In the case of the Manassas Battlefield, the project would entail widening and heightening an already existing power transmission line along the park boundary. Superintendent Clark told me that the new towers would protrude at least 15 feet above the existing tree line and be visible from the Brawner Farmhouse. This would be a sightline intrusion of considerable magnitude.

The power plant proposal has thus far failed to generate much local concern, but environmental advocacy NGOs have promised to fight the project if it proceeds as scheduled. In March, a New Jersey-based power company (LS Power) paid $195,000 for a three-year option to build a $500 million natural gas power plant on a Prince William County-owned 27-acre site little more than half a mile from the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Interstate 66. If the proposal survives the extensive study and permitting processes, the power plant could open as soon as 2012. It is hard to imagine that a power plant could be built that close to the park without heavily impacting the viewscape and affecting much more than just sightlines.

These are certainly interesting times at Manassas Battlefield National Park. We here at Traveler wish Superintendent Ed Clark good luck as he tries to make the best of a tough situation.

Comments

Developers cut down more trees in a month in Prince William County than there are in all of the Park.

And? I'm afraid I don't see your point.

Quite the dilemma. As a nature-lover and ecologist, my NPS traveling is largely limited to the nature-centric parks. Those parks preserve the nature of a place, unsullied by human hands. On the other hand, it seems to me a battlefield park is in place to preserve a landscape that was quite heavily sullied by human actors acting out one of our nation's darkest plays. And then you have Rushmore and the capital monuments that are human artifacts commemorating heroes and great deeds. All of these are preserved for unique reasons. I don't want to see trees cut down in Olympic National Park any more than I want a sculptor adding his own favorite president to Borglum's quartet in the Black Hills, or - getting to the matter at hand - forest overrunning the battlefield at Manassas.

As a card-carrying tree-hugger, it pains me to see mature hickories felled. Yet I am also the great-grandson of a young boy who lied about his age to fight for the Army Of Northern Virginia during its death throes in the spring of 1865. My father 's study had a full bookcase devoted to the civil war, Bruce Catton proudly occupying a shelf and a half. When my dad took me to Sharpsburg, I'm glad he could show me the bridge over Antietam Creek and explain why so much blood was shed there. Standing on the battlefield at Sayler's Creek (a VA State Park), my eyes want to become my great-grandfather's eyes and see what he saw, the enduring devotion to his family's farmland where the battle developed, the love for the State of Virginia, and his pride in the nearly-defeated but ever noble General Lee. Moments like that can be enhanced immeasurably by historical authenticity of the landscape. For that I would sacrifice a hickory.

I think I see what Mr. Flint is getting at--if the locals are so worried about losing trees, then they should have protested when the developers came in and built the thousands of townhouses and McMansions that crowd the Manassas landscape. I was just at this battlefield on Saturday for the First Manassas Anniversary event, and I could not believe how the area has become wall to wall developments. It's a relief to actually get to the park to enjoy some open space. I think the locals are rather hypocritical if they are upset about the park cutting down trees to restore a historical landscape but they didn't say anything about developers stripping the landscape bare.

Maybe the cooperating natural history association at Manassas could have the trees put into a wood chipper and sell the stuff by the bag in their gift shop for use in barbecue grills. I'd buy it. They could call it Stonewall's Chips or Smoke of the Battlefield. It'd make for mighty tasty chicken and ribs.