Hallowed Ground

by Brian Jewell 21. May 2010 20:28


On a Friday morning, the air around Manassas is soft and quiet. Dew drops shimmer on the green rolling hills outside of town, and all is peaceful. But it was not always so.

In July of 1861, young and inexperienced troops from the Union and Confederate armies met for the first time on the fields outside of Manassas, and engaged in a fierce battle that would shatter their illusions about the glory of war. In this, one of the early battles of the Civil War, and the first one so close to Washington and Richmond (the confederate capitol), army recruits from both sides found themselves in the middle of a baptism by fire.

Today I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park, which preserves the ground where the first and second battles of Bull Run were fought. Also known as the Battles of Bull Run, both of these encounters were victories for the South, as they beat back Union forces and sent them retreating toward Washington. For modern travelers, a visit to the park gives a remarkable perspective of what the fight meant for our country's young men, most of whom were taking their first steps into warfare.

The ground of the battlefield is scenic and peaceful, but throughout the park, a number of monuments, markers and other objects tell the story of the fighting that took place there. Visitors can see a number of cannons from the battle that have been set up on top of the hill overlooking the park. There is a large monument set up to honor the Union troops who died here, as well as a statue honoring Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who earned his nickname during the first battle here.

For me, the most moving part of the visit was the film shown at the visitor's center, which brings the conflict into human terms by telling the stories of individual soldiers, officers and civilians from both sides. Many of the young men in both armies expected the fighting to be quick, painless and relatively easy. Most thought that the conflict would end after just one battle. After a few hours of fighting, all of the surviving soldiers walked away with their lives forever changed.


Artillery cannon in the distance at Manassas Battlefield.

A monument to Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.


A monument erected by Union veterans to honor their dead at Manassas Battlefield.

Semper Fi

by Brian Jewell 21. May 2010 06:44

The National Museum of the Marine Corps is one of those places that gives you chills.

Located in Quantico near a major Marine base, this museum opened in 2006 and has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern Virginia, drawing some 500,000 visitors annually. Walking through the place today, I understood why -- this museum goes to extraoridanry lenghts to help people understand the training, commitment and creed that make the Marines our country's most lauded fighting force.

A visit to the museum is moving from the very beginning. From the outside, the large atrium of the museum is capped with a steeple-like extension, set at an angle to recall the famous photo of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. In the orientation theater, active and retired Marines (including two U.S. senators) talk about the uncommon valor shown by the men in the corps, and the special pride that comes with serving the most difficult places among bretheren who are semper fidelis -- always faithful.

From there, the museum's galleries describe the recruitment and training process of young marines, then go on to detail the Corps' history, from its creation in 1775 to its current role in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along the way, extensive dioramas feature life-sized manequins that were cast from the faces and bodies of actual men serving in the Marine Corps today. Visitors walk through some of the dioramas for an immerseve experience, and many of the displays use extensive lighting, sound and environmental effects to give guests the feeling of walking through the battleground.

The museum also features an impressive collection of artifacts, from World War I training aircraft to a rare Vietnamese artillery guns. All together, there are dozens of full-sized aircraft, tanks and armored vehicles on display, along with hundreds of guns from the many different military periods.

Military history buffs and collectors will be tempted to spend hours in this museum. For me, though, the most poignant part of the places was the human stories that it tells. There were many men in uniform, as well as retired Marine veterans, visiting the museum alongside me today, and they all share in the amazing heritage of bravery and fidelity that have made the Marines famous around the world. Even after decades out of uniform, these men remain deeply connected to the Corps, and this museum is a faithful retelling of their collective experiences.




Great ideas in the District of Columbia

by Brian Jewell 20. May 2010 07:41

I've always thought that the National Parks Service was one of the greatest ideas to come out of America (you know, besides "All men are created equal," "I have a dream," "Tear down this wall," and all of the other inspirational stuff). But during my daylong visit to the National Mall in Washington, I decided that the Smithsonian Institution ranks right up there with the best cultural achievements of our country.

I'll be spending the next few days exporing Manassas and the Prince William County area of Northern Virginia. Today, though, I rode the train into Washington for a quick look at the Smithsonian and other attractions around the National Mall. Though I visited some of these places as a middle-school student years ago, returning as an adult gave me a new appreciation for just how great these museums are, and what a point of pride they should be for all Americans.

I began with a visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. This museum holds millions of items from our past, ranging from antique arms and armor to steam locomotives, famous musical instruments, and a host of things in between. One of the most famous is the large American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner" during the war of 1812. I was captivated by a wing with various exhibitions on America's presidents, which included artifacts from the White House, video interviews wiith former presidents, a gallery of first ladies' ball gowns and a special section on Abraham Lincoln, complete with one of his famous top hats.

Next, I took a stroll down the mall to the National Museum of the American Indian, the newest of the Smithsonian museums in Washington. This institution does an amazing job of telling the stories of America's diverse native peoles, from the northeastern woodlands to the desert Southwest and the icey fjords of Alaska. The artifacts and informational panels were chosen by the individual tribes and groups they represent, and the exhibits give a fascinating job of describing the past and present triumphs and struggles of indigenous people in America.

In addition to the museums, I also took time to enjoy the National Mall, spread out between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.  On the grounds of the capitol complex, I happened upon the National Botanic Garden, an attraction that I wasn't aware of. A quick trip inside revealed hundreds of plants from all parts of the world, inside a conservatory that proved a welcome relief from the bustling Mall and capitol just outside.

You could spend a week in D.C. without running out of things to do. But even a daylong trip was enough to remind me of just a few of the things I love about this country.


Julia Child's kitchen on display in at the National museum of American History.


An original Kermit the Frog puppet, on display in the pop culture gallery at the National Museum of American History.


Abraham Lincoln's top hat.


This colorful mask on display at the National Museum of the American Indian was used in tribal ceremonies in the Southwest.


One of many exotic plants cultivated at the National Botanic Garden.


Another rare flower fromthe National Botanic Garden.

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