Virginia’s heaven for history lovers

BY RICK ROGERS Published: January 10, 2010
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. — Since 1969, the Commonwealth of Virginia has used the catchphrase "Virginia is for Lovers” as a clever way to boost tourism. After spending several days exploring Prince William County, I’m inclined to amend that slogan to read "Virginia is for History Lovers.”

Named for the second son of England’s King George II, Prince William County is situated in northeastern Virginia and borders the Potomac River. Manassas, the county seat, has a population of 35,000 people, making it comparable to Bartlesville, OK. It’s a community rich with history.

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, the seeds of war had already been planted. Before he took office four months later, seven Southern states had seceded from the union. Four more, including Virginia, would do so by June 1861.

In April 1861, Manassas became the site of the first Civil War battle. Today, the area is part of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, a 5,000-acre expanse that was established in 1940. Two 19th-century structures built on this site have been preserved: Henry House, whose family matriarch, Judith Henry, became the first civilian death of the first battle of Bull Run; and Stone House, an 1848 structure that was restored to its pre-Civil War appearance in the early 1960s.

A nearby monument built in 1865 honors "the Patriots who fought at Bull Run, July 21, 1861.” Also on the grounds of the Manassas Battlefield is a monument that pays tribute to Thomas Jonathan Jackson, the Confederate general who earned his nickname "Stonewall” after the first battle of Bull Run.

History enthusiasts should take time to explore the Manassas Museum, a 7,000-square-foot facility that chronicles northern Virginia’s history beginning in 1770. A tattered flag carried by the Prince William Cavalry offers a potent reminder of this area’s historical significance. In 1911, fifty years after the battle of Manassas, President William Howard Taft traveled to Virginia to help commemorate the occasion.

The nearby Manassas Depot, which today houses the visitors center, makes a convenient starting point for a walking tour of Manassas. Across the railroad tracks is the Candy Factory, a long-defunct operation that once produced more than five tons of candy per year. In 2002, the factory was renovated and reopened as the home of the Center for the Arts. Today, the multistory building houses the Pied Piper Theatre for children, dance studios and the Caton Merchant Family Gallery.

A quick drive to the southwest takes visitors to Brentsville, Prince William’s county seat throughout much of the 19th century. Of the six historic buildings preserved here, the 1822 courthouse offers a reminder of how justice was carried out more than 175 years ago. Judges, who had lifetime appointments, were the county’s governing body.

Over the decades, 13 people were hanged here, many of whom were runaway black slaves.

Adjacent to the courthouse is a jail that is scheduled for renovation. Many consider the jail to be haunted, claims that led to a segment that aired on the Syfy network’s "Ghost Hunters.”

The Brentsville property also contains a one-room schoolhouse dating from 1928, and an 1850s-era farmhouse that was restored in 2008. A steep staircase leads to the two upstairs bedrooms that were shared by the original owners’ nine children. Know It: Travel Know It: Military