Like many Civil War battlefields in Northern Virginia, Bristoe Station is under ever increasing pressure as the Capital Beltway expands. The heart of this battlefield is now preserved within the Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park, through the efforts of the Civil War Preservation Trust, working with local real estate developers and Prince William County.
Also like many battlefields in Northern Virginia, there are actually multiple Civil War events which occurred on the ground. The area was a Confederate winter encampment in 1861-62. Later the following summer on August 27, 1862 as Federal columns in pursuit of Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson’s force approached Manassas Junction, a rear guard force under Confederate General Richard S. Ewell held a defensive line along nearby Kettle Run. While the park includes extended walking trails to areas related to those events, the interpretation offered highlights the October 14, 1863 battle fought at the site.
The National Park Service offers a self guided tour to the location, but I’ve found that somewhat dated due to changes in the road infrastructure. The tour was written before the current park was established, and opened to the public, and as such focuses on sites accessible at that time. If one is visiting the Manassas Battlefield, the best way to Bristoe Station is by way of Virginia Highway 28, which passes through the town of Manassas. To the west of the interchange with Virginia Highway 234 is Broad Run, one of the sites mentioned on the NPS self guided tour. But the state marker mentioned in the tour was relocated during road improvements. Roughly 2/3 mile past the bridge make a left at a traffic light onto Bristow Road (CR 619). In about half a mile turn left onto Iron Brigade Unit Avenue. Follow that drive up to Tenth Alabama Way and enter the parking area for the Heritage Park.
The Battle of Bristoe Station was part of a larger campaign in the fall of 1863, in which Confederate General Robert E. Lee attempted to regain some of the momentum lost in the Gettysburg Campaign earlier in the summer. In a scenario somewhat similar to the early stages of the 2nd Manassas Campaign the previous year, the Army of Northern Virginia advanced north out of Culpeper in an attempt to get behind the Army of the Potomac. As the armies maneuvered toward the familiar terrain around Centreville, a series of small and confusing actions occurred around Auburn to the northwest of Bristoe.
Continuing toward Manassas Junction as the lead of the Confederate army, on October 14, 1863 General A.P. Hill’s Corps encountered what he thought were the trail elements of the Federal army at Broad Run. After driving off some rear guard forces of the Federal V Corps around 1:30 p.m., Hill’s men, with General Henry Heth’s Division in the lead, came into contact with parts of the Federal II Corps, under General Gouverneur K. Warren, posted along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad at Bristoe Station. Hill’s hasty deployment of Heth’s Division soon turned into a disaster as Confederate troops were bloodily repulsed. The repulse bought enough time for the Federal column to resume their march unmolested to Centreville.
The “A.P. Hill’s Folly” Trail (guides available on site or from the County web site – page 1 and page 2) starts at the parking lot and covers the ground fought over on the afternoon of October 14. The trail is 1.3 miles long and has seven stops including the parking lot kiosk. Stop 2 on the trail is a rise of ground offering a view of the terrain where the opening stages of the battle unfolded.
The forward elements of Heth’s Division deployed in fields that is today the wooded area to the distant right of the houses in the view above, on the other side of Bristow Road, and south of Va. 28. The North Carolina brigades of Gens. John Cooke and W.W. Kirkland in particular wheeled from that area to the south when Warren’s II Corps was first sighted along the railroad.
The view above looks directly toward the railroad (far distant tree line) where Warren’s men were posted. Shortly after 2 p.m. Cooke’s men advanced across this ground toward the Federal position, with Kirkland’s Brigade on the east side of Brentsville Road (modern Bristow Road). Both brigades suffered heavily. The tour guide cites the 27th North Carolina in particular losing 290 casualties of 416 engaged, including 33 of 36 officers. Both Cooke and Kirkland were wounded in the action.
Astride Cooke’s line of march is Robertson Cemetery, which was not on the battlefield at the time. It dates to 1884, and from what I can tell does not include any veterans’ graves.
Cooke’s and Kirkland’s attack gained only a temporary purchase on the Federal line astride the railroad. A brigade led by Col. James Mallon held the line directly south (left out of frame of the photo) in this sector. Mallon counterattacked and pushed back the Confederate infantry, however he was killed near this spot rallying his men.
The Federal Divisions of Gens. Alexander Webb and Alexander Hays defended along the railroad line, seen here from a point along the trail southwest of stop 4. Federal artillery posted on the high ground south of the railroad had clear fields of fire to assist the defenders.
Looking north along the trail toward the Confederate lines. The Brigade of Gen. E.A. Perry advanced toward the camera in this view to cover the right flank of Cooke’s assault. To the left of frame the Brigade of Gen. Carnot Posy also advanced, only to be checked by the Federals of Hays Division. Posey was mortally wounded while leading his command.
The trail turns back northeast toward the high ground to complete the loop. This view looks up the slope of the hill overlooking Bristoe Station. Major David McIntosh placed seven guns on this high ground to counter the Federal artillery on the south side of the railroad. With the repulse of Cooke’s infantry, Federal forces advanced in pursuit. In addition to capturing many Confederates, two battle flags, and five of McIntosh’s guns. The trail stop is at the top of this rise, next to the trees in the distant left center.
Looking southeast from the top of the hill. This view allows the visitor to take in the important points of the field. The railroad runs across this view in the distant tree line, behind the rusty barn in the far left. Federal batteries were posted on the high ground beyond the railroad. Cooke’s Confederates were repulsed after attacking across the ground below this point. That repulse also turned any options Lee had to bring his adversary into a general engagement. Once beyond Broad Run, the Federals had secured their links to Washington, D.C. There would be no 3rd Manassas in 1863. Was it from this vantage point that Lee censured Hill by saying, “… bury these poor men and let us say no more about it…”?
This recent trip in June was my third trip to Bristoe Station. The trail and trail guides have evolved somewhat since the first visit in 2007. And more improvements are planned, to include opening the 20th century building atop the hill as a visitor center (as indicated by a sign in the window). I’ve found the Hill’s Folly trail generally an easy walk with only one or two inclines to worry about. The trail is part paved, with gravel on the rest. My “aide-de-camp” was able to use his “push bike” around the loop. The other two trails – Tragedy in Camp and Kettle Run Expansion – are mostly dirt paths, but do not have the terrain elevations to worry about. However after any heavy rain, those trails are very muddy.
One last note on Bristoe Station. As seen from the view above from the Kettle Run Expansion trail, developers are busy on their side of the divide. Certainly many areas related to the Civil War in the nearby area remain unprotected, and I’m just not happy trying to visualize “what was” around three story housing units. While making the most of the preservation that was done, we should acknowledge what additional work remains to protect the culturally and historically significant sites around Bristoe Station.