– Civil War Series –
The climax of the First Battle of Manassas took place on Henry Hill, a grassy pasture west of Bull Run and north of Manassas Junction, Virginia—the object of Union attack. On the afternoon of July 21, 1861, after a Federal victory in the morning at nearby Matthews Hill, fierce Confederate resistance at Henry Hill stopped the assault in its tracks, eventually forcing Gen. Irvin McDowell’s Union force to retreat back to Washington.
The Henry Hill Loop Trail is perhaps the most popular hike in Manassas National Battlefield Park due to its location just behind the Visitor Center. Clocking in at 1.2 miles, the hike covers many of the battle’s major landmarks, including the Henry House, Brig. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s artillery line, and Captain Charles Griffin’s two famed field guns. (Note: The loop is one of five hiking trails that trace the First Battle of Manassas; see also the First Manassas Trail, Sudley Loop Trail, Stone Bridge Loop Trail, and Matthews Hill Loop Trail.)
Manassas National Battlefield Park is located just off Interstate 66, roughly 30 miles west of Washington, DC. Henry Hill Visitor Center serves as the starting point for most visitors and marks the start of the Henry Hill Loop Trail. Ranger-led talks cover part of the trail and are offered daily at 11am and 2pm.
Looking north from the Visitor Center, the Henry Hill Loop Trail strikes out across a grassy ridge, heading toward the Henry House, visible from the Visitor Center.
The Union cannons on the left are arrayed as they were during the height of battle, around 2 pm on July 21, 1861. After a several-hour delay on Matthews Hill, Union Gen. Irvin McDowell finally directed two artillery batteries—11 guns in all—to seize the high ground on Henry Hill. When they arrived, however, they lacked sufficient infantry support and were immediately riddled with fire; Brig. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson already had 13 short-range cannons in place along the reverse slope to the east. As Confederate divisions fled Matthews Hill in the morning, they rallied at Henry Hill behind Jackson, who had just arrived around midday. Here, the legend of Stonewall was born: Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee, regrouping after Matthews Hill, reportedly shouted to his men: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”
Looking east from the Union cannons, Jackson’s statue towers over the hill, with the 13 cannons just beyond. Continuing on the trail, stop to peer inside the reconstructed Henry House. As Federal forces advanced up Henry Hill, they came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters who were hiding inside the house. Capt. J.B. Ricketts’ artillery returned fire, riddling the house with bullets and killing 85-year-old Judith Carter Henry, who refused to leave her home and became the battle’s first and only civilian casualty. (Note: Behind the house is a stone monument, built in 1865 to commemorate the fallen.)
Beyond the Henry House, the trail descends gradually and approaches a lone cedar and a weathered wayside overlooking Matthews Hill and the Stone House. It was here that Confederate Capt. John Imboden had four guns, pointed north as the Federals streamed down Matthews Hill. For a brief moment, Imboden’s artillerymen were the only obstacle to a Federal attack; as reinforcements arrived, however, Imboden’s battery moved to reinforce Jackson.
From this point, bear right as the loop trail drops downhill to cross a minor creek. At 4/10 mile, bear left on a wide track that cuts across an open field. The next junction has an interpretive panel discussing the much-hailed resistance of Confederate Col. Wade Hampton and his infantry; Hampton’s Legion took the brunt of the fighting in the interim period between the battles at Matthews and Henry Hills.
Bearing right at the fork, the trail reaches the remains of the Robinson House at 6/10 mile. Owned by James Robinson—a free black man—the house escaped major damage during the battle; it survived until 1993, when it was felled by arsonists. Past the Robinson House, the trail heads back toward the Visitor Center, passing behind Jackson’s line of artillery at roughly .85 mile. Stay straight as the path intersects the 5.4-mile First Manassas Trail.
The final leg of the hike traces a key event, arguably the turning point in the battle: the capture of artillery Capt. Charles Griffin’s two howitzers. Facing merciless pounding from Jackson’s guns, Griffin decided to move two of his six guns beyond the right of Ricketts’ line in an effort to expose Jackson’s line to enfilading fire. By the time Griffin had unlimbered the two cannons, however, the 33rd Virginia Infantry emerged from the woods, seizing the position.
With the Visitor Center parking lot off to the right, the trail approaches the position where Griffin’s guns stood at 1.1 mile. Fast forwarding two hours in battle time, a final interpretive panel 100 yards later tells the story of the Union retreat—scattered, chaotic, and humiliating. From here it is mere steps to the parking lot and Visitor Center, bringing the 1.2-mile loop to an end.
Allot around an hour for this circuit hike.
Four additional hikes traverse the terrain of the First Battle of Manassas, including:
- First Manassas Trail (5.4 mi. loop)
- Sudley Loop Trail (0.6 mi. stem-and-loop)
- Stone Bridge Loop Trail (1.6 mi. stem-and-loop)
- Matthews Hill Loop Trail (1.0 mi. stem-and-loop)
Civil War Trust, “Bull Run,” https://www.civilwar.org/learn/civil-war/battles/bull-run
John J. Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas, Revised Edition (Stackpole Books: 2015)
National Park Service, “The Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run),” https://www.nps.gov/mana/learn/historyculture/first-manassas.htm
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Thanks for doing another informative write-up. This blog is one of the best for people looking to do a hike in the U.S.
Thanks for reading!
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