Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park

Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park

Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park

Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park


When the Disney Company ended months of controversy in 1995 by deciding against locating its historic theme park near the National Battlefield Park in Manassas, Virginia, advocates of historic preservation had won their own battle but perhaps not their war.

Few places exemplify the problems of historic preservation as urgently as Manassas. The site of this Civil War battle, also known as Bull Run, has been encroached upon by plans for an interstate highway, a cemetery, a shopping mall, and two theme parks. As Washington continues its sprawl into the Virginia countryside, pressure will surely mount to develop the remaining open land surrounding the battlefield.

The history of Manassas battlefield illustrates that the Disney controversy is only the latest in a long line of skirmishes over historic preservation and use. Battling for Manassas is a record of the struggles to preserve the park over the past fifty years. First commissioned as a report by the National Park Service, this book tells how park managers, government officials, preservationists, developers, and concerned citizens have managed to find compromises that would protect the site while accommodating changes in the surrounding community.

Joan Zenzen's narrative places these highly publicized preservation conflicts within the framework of the park's history. She traces the efforts to preserve this Civil War battleground as it has slowly been surrounded by suburban development and discloses how issues involving visitors' facilities, recreation use of parkland, non-park-related usage, and encroachment on park boundaries by commercial interests have all come into play. Her study draws on interviews with many individuals who have been influential in the park's history&- including park service officials, members of Congress, representatives of preservation groups, developers, and local officials&- as well as on archival documents that help explain the nature of each controversy. She also shows that the Park Service's reluctance to conduct long-range planning following the controversy over Marriott's proposed Great America theme park contributed to later battles over development.

Battling for Manassas is the story of how one site has garnered national attention and taught Americans valuable lessons about the future of historic preservation. It demonstrates to everyone interested in the Civil War that, with only 58 of 384 sites currently under Park Service jurisdiction, what has happened at Manassas might well occur on other historic grounds threatened by development or neglect.


My first experience with Manassas National Battlefield Park was in late 1941, a short sixteen months after the park was established. I had recently turned eighteen, and with Adolf Hitler's armies deep into the Soviet Union, I was touring the country as a hitchhiker, certain that I would soon be in the military. I had gotten a ride from several young men in a Ford roadster just east of New Market in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. the driver stopped briefly at the Stone House, which at that time was a roadside store, before proceeding to the nation's capital. a Civil War enthusiast since the seventh grade -- when living with my family on a ranch in Montana, I had named one of our cattle Bull Run -- I reflected on the historical events that had occurred eighty years earlier.

I visited the battlefield park again in the winter of 1949-50, while I was employed by the Naval Hydrographic Office at Suitland, Maryland, during an automobile tour of Civil War battle sites and parks in the Washington, D.C., area. But it was not until the 1950s, at the beginning of a forty-year career with the National Park Service, that I came to know the Manassas park. During those two score years I experienced the park from three perspectives. the first was between 1955 and 1958 when I was a park historian at Vicksburg National Military Park and then between 1958 and 1966 when I was regional research historian assigned to the Southeast Regional Office in Richmond, Virginia. Although stationed at the Vicksburg Park, I had regionwide responsibilities insofar as Civil War-related research was concerned.

My first visit to Manassas as a public historian was in conjunction with a regional workshop for rangers and interpreters held in Richmond in October 1956, when I made a side trip to Manassas. At the workshop I met the Manassas park historian and several of his predecessors. During the informal evening sessions I gained valuable insights into the Manassas park, its place in the community, and its current superintendent, Francis Wilshin, and his predecessors, Joseph Mills Hanson and Jim Myers. Hanson commanded awe, Myers respect, but the jury was still out on Wilshin, who was . . .

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