Trees vs. History

It’s trees vs. history at Manassas Battlefield, and “Trees Lose” as described today by the Washington Post. 

About 140 acres of forest in the national park has been cut down in the last year.  The land where the trees were removed was acquired by the National Park Service to protect the setting of the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862, just west of the site of the Battle of First Manassas. 

As described by the National Park Service, “These important battlegrounds and associated monuments are nestled in over 5000 acres of meadows, woodlands and streams.”  Now – well, there’s more grassy hayfield and less woodland…

The First Battle of Manassas in 1861 is in all the history books, as the first major clash between Confederate and Union armies.  (The Yankees called it the Battle of Bull Run.)  The second battle, a year later, is more obscure.  It was another clear victory for the Confederates, but few people besides Civil War buffs (or some of us local residents in Northern Virginia) know much about that battle.

Equally obscure is the ecological value of the “Basic Oak – Hickory Forest.”  Fairfax County has established Elklick Woodlands Natural Area Preserve nearby to conserve that rare association of species on “basic” (vs. “acid”) soil, but the priority at Manassas National Battlefield Park is not nature – it’s history. 

The trees removed by the National Park Service grew up AFTER the 1862 battle, but many that were cut may have been over a century old.  Around here, where most old forests are now fresh new subdivisions, that’s rare. 

Most everyone in NOVA can appreciate the forest scenery, even if they never read a scientific report on the flora.  So it was a big deal when so many trees were cut in order to recreate the historic landscape of 1862, when the Union soldiers marched across Featherbed Lane towards the Confederates lined up along an unfinished railroad.  (The key to the battle: Confederate artillery wrecked the attack, though there was fierce hand-to-hand fighting where Confederate soldiers who ran out of ammunition threw rocks at their attackers, and the Union Army retreated back to Washington DC.)

One of the values of visiting the battlefield is the experience of standing on the spot where you know history happened.  The well-informed rangers at the battlefield know how different military units moved across the landscape.  Dry readings about “the war” that were required in school classes long ago can become powerful experiences, as the rangers tell the stories of infantry marching across fields while artillerymen fired shot and shell.  Emotions can come alive in amazing ways, when we walk the very same paths as those soldiers on hot August days in 1862.

Cutting the trees was a conscious trade-off by the Federal government.  They could not preserve a natural forest *and* provide the historic landscape, and they chose to remove the forest rather than cut a narrow strip for an artificially-limited vista between the artillery and infantry locations.   

Now the trees are gone.  The view is back, except for one strip of trees, preserved to stop sediment from getting into a stream.   If we can’t enjoy the forest, we might as well enjoy the history now.  The 146th anniversary of the second battle is also Labor Day weekend in 2008, so it’s a good time to visit the site and see for yourself.

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1 comment so far

  1. PWConservative on

    My view is that of Delegate Bob Marshall.
    The Clear-Cutting performed is not good as it will cause the battlefield to become eroded and more silt will be washed into the Bay. It would be more acceptable in my view to remove the trees over a several month long period. As they removed each section of trees they could plant NWSG’s to prevent erosion and create wildlife habitat.


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