July 21, 1861, and Aug. 28-30, 1862
THE BATTLES: If the First Battle of Bull Run proved anything—aside from the tenacity of the Confederacy—it was that a battlefield is no place for spectators. Convinced the rebellion would last no longer than three months, President Lincoln sent 29,000 inexperienced Union troops south to Richmond to crush the Rebel uprising. Thirty-three thousand equally green Confederates met the bluecoats—and droves of curious picnickers—outside of Manassas, a strategic rail junction just 25 miles from the U.S. capital. The Union earned an early advantage, but as the Confederate lines crumbled, Virginians under the command of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson stood “like a stone wall,” and the Rebels rallied around them, turning the Union advance into a chaotic retreat. Just over a year later, the armies met here again in the Second Battle of Bull Run, a much larger battle (and Confederate victory) that left more than 18,000 wounded or dead.
THE PADDLE: The Union retreat turned into a rout when Rebel artillery fire overturned a wagon at a bridge crossing nearby Cub Run. Today the battlefield is a sprawl of suburban townhomes and condos, but the historic crossing remains, now a nondescript bridge on Virginia Route 29—known locally as Lee Highway. Put in there for two miles of rollicking Class III on Cub Run, which flows during heavy rains. Near the confluence of Big Rocky Run, a decent surfing wave forms at levels above 3 feet.
If you prefer to paddle amongst forests and open fields—not to mention Civil War history—try Bull Run itself. The creek features two primary sections: the three-plus miles above Route 28 and the 8.5 miles of flatwater that runs through Bull Run Regional Park. The upper section begins at the Route 28 bridge, where a few days prior to First Bull Run, Confederates surprised Union forces with an overwhelming counterattack in the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford. This shallow section of Class I-II zips around corners. Downstream the run is deeper, slower and perhaps even more interesting. You’ll encounter an old abandoned lowhead dam and pass the Rod and Gun Club, where you may hear the blast of rifles—a faint echo of the battles fought here 150 years ago.