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Civil War Commemoration Stifled by Heat

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A Civil War reenactor basks in the shade for a little relief from the heat at the Manassas battlefield.
Jonathan Wilson
A Civil War reenactor basks in the shade for a little relief from the heat at the Manassas battlefield.

Exactly 150 years after the Union and Confederate soldiers clashed on the Virginia battlefield in the Battle of Bull Run, historians, local and state officials, and spectators gathered at the site Thursday.

After a rhythmic introduction by the Marine Corps band from Quantico, the commemoration began with remarks from elected leaders -- including Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

In April of last year, McDonnell made the mistake of proclaiming April as "Confederate History Month" in Virginia without mentioning slavery. It was an omission he didn't repeat Thursday morning.

"Until the Civil War, that founding principle that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights was undermined by slavery," he said.

Edward Ayers, a noted civil war historian and president of the University of Richmond, did the most to paint a picture of Virginia as it was in the days leading up to First Manassas. He pointed out that Prince William County voted for secession, even when most surrounding counties wanted to remain in the Union.

"Prince William, in other words, was one of the most northern counties that voted to secede, and it did so enthusiastically," Ayers aid. "Today, Manassas is part of greater Washington. In 1861, it was firmly in the South."

The heat and humidity throughout the day -- temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees -- meant many visitors carried sun-shielding umbrellas along with cameras and folding lawn chairs. The hot sun led crowds to thin out until the musketry firing demonstration early in the afternoon.

The popular event will be repeated multiple times each day until Sunday.

Jack Rightmeyer, who is visiting from Pennsylvania for the events, says he hopes people don't miss out on this once in a lifetime event because of the scorching temperatures.

"Just think about them soldiers," he says. "It's the same day those soldiers did this 150 years ago wearing wool and cotton."

Jim Matte knows that better than most; he's a volunteer reenactor who'll be spending the next three days in wool in cotton as a Confederate soldier. He thinks he'll survive.

"So far so good, but I don't think I'm gonna move from this spot for a while," he says.

Though there is water available at the battlefield, National Park Service organizers urge visitors to bring their own water if they plan to attend commemoration events over the next couple of days, as temperatures aren't expected to drop until Sunday.

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