Interview: Brandon Bies, Superintendent of MNBP

13 10 2017

Back in February 2017, Brandon Bies was named the new Superintendent at Manassas National Battlefield Park (read the NPS press release here). In a somewhat unusual move for the NPS, they have placed someone with a very strong Civil War background in charge of a Civil War battlefield park. Mr. Bies recently took some time to talk to Bull Runnings about himself and the future of MNBP.

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BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

BB: We might touch upon this more later, but for most of my life I had an interest in American military history – mostly in World War II and the Civil War. Realizing this, I entered college at the University of Delaware as a History major, though at age 19 I had no idea what exactly I would do for a career. Fairly quickly, I decided to double major in Anthropology, which is typically what you study in the United States if you are interested in archeology. I also added a minor in American Material Cultural Studies. I graduated in 2001 and went straight to grad school at the University of Maryland, earning my Masters in Applied Anthropology (with a concentration in Historical Archaeology) in 2003.

While at UMD, I got my first real taste of the National Park Service, and spent 2 ½ years as an archeologist at Monocacy National Battlefield. That is where I did my Master’s project (we didn’t call it a thesis), which was to identify and prepare a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the archeological remains of the encampment of the 14th New Jersey. But my work at Monocacy also exposed me to other time periods as well, because the archeological history at Civil War parks goes back long before the battles were fought.

By the end of grad school, I knew pretty well that I wanted to work for the NPS – I really identified with the mission, and the efforts the NPS makes to tell diverse stories. I was incredibly fortunate in that – just a half year after getting my Masters – I was able to find a permanent position as a Cultural Resource Specialist at the George Washington Memorial Parkway. I held that position until 2010, when I made the difficult decision to not get my hands dirty as often, and transition into park management. I served a brief stint as the Site Manager of Great Falls Park, and then spent four years as the Site Manager of Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. While there, I was fortunate enough to work with the Director of the National Park Service to secure a $12.35M donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein for the rehabilitation of the entire site.

At about that time, I began to dabble in legislative affairs, and so I moved over to the NPS regional office in D.C., where I split my time handling congressional affairs for all of the parks in the National Capital Region, while also still helping to manage the extensive planning of the Arlington House project. After three years in that office, I became the Superintendent here at Manassas in March 2017.

BR: How did you get interested in history in general, and in the Civil War in particular?

BB: I’d say I have always been drawn to history – particularly to military history. Both my grandfathers were veterans of WWII, and one of them went through some pretty bad stuff with the 1st Marine Division. I was always craving for him to share his experiences (which he eventually began to do prior to passing away in 2011). So as a kid I was always fascinated by WWII and, to a lesser extent, the Civil War. I do think that the Ken Burns series – which came out when I was eleven – made an impression on me, and by the time I got to high school I was reading a good bit about both conflicts. But unlike WWII, I could actually visit Civil War battlefields, which I began to do while in Boy Scouts.

Towards the end of high school, I started going to Civil War reenactments, and I became more and more interested in the material culture of the Civil War and in the common soldier. In my freshman year of college, I took a course on the archeology of American battlefields, taught by Dr. David Orr. I was hooked. Dave was an archeologist with the National Park Service out of Philadelphia, and at the time was largely focused on the Civil War. I think that class is what refocused me, and I realized if I could be one thing, I wanted to be Civil War archeologist.

BR: Since you’ve had a little time to settle in, what do you see as the challenges facing MNBP at this time?

BB: I’d say the park is facing three major challenges: impacts from adjacent development, severe traffic congestion, and maintaining/restoring the historic landscape.

The surroundings of the park have changed drastically over the last 30 years. While the park was once surrounded by farms, it is now bounded by development or planned future developments. 15% of the lands inside the congressionally-authorized boundary of the park are not federally owned. As I type this, there are multiple housing developments being planned or constructed on private lands within the boundary of the park. That will make it very, very hard to ever acquire and preserve those lands. But it’s not just housing developments – we’re working with the Virginia Department of Transportation on minimizing the impacts of a massive expansion of I-66, which runs along the southern boundary of the park. The proposed project will almost double the size of the road, and may include lengthy flyover ramps that are visible from within the park. And of course, there are frequent proposals for new cell phone towers and power lines that have the potential to create visual impacts.

With development comes traffic. On weekdays, it is exceptionally difficult to move around the park except for in the middle of the day. Even then, hundreds of large trucks pass through the park daily, and the car traffic is still intense. This makes it challenging for visitors to experience the different parts of the park or to drive the audio tour. It doesn’t matter what we do to restore the landscape; with the constant buzzing of traffic through the park, visiting Manassas can be a very different experience than standing in the heart of, say, Antietam or Shiloh. The Department of the Interior is legislatively mandated to explore ways to divert traffic around the park, and if deemed to be in the interest of protecting the integrity of the park, construct new highways and close the major thoroughfares that bisect the park. Although planning for this did come close to reality a few years ago, rerouting the existing roads is a divisive proposal that is dependent upon considerable political and financial support to be put back on the table.

Finally, restoration of the Civil War-era landscape is a huge priority of mine, but it is also a significant challenge. Many areas of the park that are now heavily wooded were historically open fields, but (for good reason) we can’t just go in one day and remove hundreds of trees. Besides needing to go through a considerable environmental and public review process, we also need a plan on how to maintain these areas once they are cleared. A classic example is the ~130 acres adjacent to the Deep Cut that were cleared about ten years ago; between the stumps that were left behind and the rocky terrain, it has been very difficult to maintain this area using traditional mowing methods, and thus portions have grown back up considerably.

BR: On the flipside, what do you see as the opportunities for the park, in the way of programs and projects?

BB: Well, speaking of landscape restoration, we are hoping to try some new things to keep some of these open spaces cleared, including the use of controlled burns. While using fire could alarm some people, it is a widely-accepted management tool throughout the NPS, and with proper outreach to the public, I think will ultimately help us significantly. It is also a great way to clear out nasty non-native invasive species, and ultimately supports the establishment of habitat for native birds like quail.

We also have a quickly-growing friends group, the Manassas Battlefield Trust. They have a lot of energy, and I think in the next few years we are going to see some great things from then, ranging from the rehabilitation of historic structures to new educational opportunities.

Finally, I really think we have an opportunity to reach new audiences. We cannot and should not depend upon Civil War buffs like you and I to be the sole supporters of this park. We have something for everyone, whether they want to come here to bird watch, to exercise, or just to enjoy 5,000 acres of open space. Now is the time to try to reach new user groups, forge them into advocates for the park, and share some significant Civil War stories at the same time.

BR: Bull Runnings had a very successful (IMO) outing at the park in April 2016. We had over 60 folks tour the field from top to bottom, so to speak, on what started out as a rainy Saturday. Hopefully, we can arrange another such tour in the future. Many visitors to the park tend to spend their time on the Henry Hill loop, so far as First Bull Run is concerned. Are there any plans to raise the profile of the first battle on other areas of the field?

BB: As I mentioned above, I am keenly interested in continuing to restore the landscape here, and that certainly includes looking at some of the key views related to the first battle. But it’s going to be a process and not happen overnight. Your readers may be interested in learning that, beginning in mid-October, we will begin a million dollar project to rehabilitate the Stone Bridge. This will include stabilizing some of the structural elements, replacing missing stones and repointing the whole bridge, and laying down new textured and colored pavement (called a chip seal) on the bridge road surface. If all goes according to schedule, the bridge should look great by the end of the year.

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After completion of this interview, there was an incident of vandalism at Manassas National Battlefield Park. The Superintendent had this to say regarding that incident:

59d507ab2a525.imageBB: Obviously, the current debate over Confederate symbols and remembrance is something that has hit close to home recently at Manassas. On the morning of October 4th, park staff discovered that the monument to Stonewall Jackson had been vandalized. While far from the first Confederate monument to be vandalized over the last few months, to my knowledge, this was the first to be struck that was within the context of a national park or battlefield. If there is any place where monuments to the Confederacy are appropriate, it should be at the places where the fighting took place. After all, it takes two sides (at least) to tell the story of a battlefield; otherwise, it’s just a field. And, in terms of monuments being placed in their appropriate context, you really can’t get more context for a Jackson monument than it standing at the very spot where he got the name “Stonewall.”

I’d say that my reaction – and that of most of the staff – is disappointment. Our National Parks should be places for dialogue, not destruction. It’s healthy to have a debate over the causes of the Civil War, and over how we remember those who fought. But in national parks, we tell all the stories, from the combatants to the civilians to the enslaved, all of whom left their marks on these fields, and all of whom are worthy of being remembered.





Petersburg: Fort Mahone, 10/2/2016

13 10 2016

Our last stop at Petersburg was the vicinity of Fort Mahone, now built over with dwellings and businesses (for some Craig Swain photos of the ground, see here). It was during the 9th Corps assault on this work that my great-grandfather was wounded on April 2, 1865. Good luck finding out much more about their action that day. The site lies outside NPS boundaries, and outside Pamplin Park boundaries, and is hopelessly built up. If you do run across any info, please feel free to share it in the comments. I’m intrigued, personally. And while I’m wary of the pitfalls of ancestor worship, I may just have to look into this myself.

The monument to John Hartranft’s 3rd Division of the 9th Corps (great-grandpa’s 205th PA was in the 2nd Brigade) can be found “in the median of Wakefield Street about 350 yards west of the intersection of South Crater Road and South Sycamore Street.” (For more on the monument, go here.) The monument is referred to on the NPS maps as “The Pennsylvania Monument.” It is the most tangible of the little evidence of their service on April 2, 1865.

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My big bro and me





Petersburg: Fort Stedman 10/2/2016

12 10 2016

The reason I opted for a trip to Petersburg as opposed to a whirlwind tour of Seven Days on my return home from Williamsburg is that my great-grandfather John B. Smeltzer had fought there with the 205th Pennsylvania. I was in Williamsburg with my brother, who lives in Charleston, SC, and whom I see only sporadically, so it seemed like a cool family trip, and not too far out of either of our ways home. The first stop was Fort Stedman, which lies within the confines of the battlefield park.

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Found this image of J. A. Mathews at the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center a few years back

The Battle of Fort Stedman – also known as the Battle of Hare’s Hill – took place on March 25, 1865, and has been described as “Lee’s Last Offensive.” In brief, feeling that “to stand still was death,” Robert E. Lee ordered Much of his army, under the direction of John B. Gordon, against a point in the Union siege line occupied by Fort Stedman and batteries X, XI, and XII, manned by Napoleon B. McGlaughlen’s 3rd Brigade of Orlando Willcox’s 1st Division of John G. Parke’s 9th Corps. Fort Stedman and the batteries were quickly overrun, but were retaken with the help of John F. Hartrnaft’s 3rd Division, the 2nd Brigade of which great-grandpa’s regiment was a part, under the command of Joseph A. Mathews. From the maps in Volume XXV, #1 of Blue & Gray magazine (maybe 8 years ago), it looks like the 205th PA’s involvement was around Batteries XI and XII. But it’s all very confusing, with post-war fighting for accolades fogging up the picture. Regardless, thanks to my typical piss-poor planning, I only stopped for photos at Fort Stedman proper, and here they are. Click on the images for larger ones.

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Petersburg: Visitor Center, 10/2/2016

11 10 2016

Maybe I should have started with this one, since our first stop in Petersburg was the Visitor Center. Not too overwhelming, certainly nothing like the bloated colossus of Gettysburg, but it gets the job done. Keep in mind that the NPS installations at Petersburg include the Eastern Front Visitor Center (the one I visited), the Western Front Visitor Contact Station, the Five Forks Battlefield Visitor Contact Station, and Grant’s Headquarters at City Point. We only had a limited time, so the EFVC was our only NPS stop.

Here are some photos of the grounds outside the building. A nice display of guns. Click on the images for larger ones.

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This gun is weird (man, that never gets old)

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A 30 pdr Parrott, like the one with which Peter C. Hains opened BR1





Petersburg: The Crater, 10/2/2016

7 10 2016

Last week, on my way home from a golf outing in Willimasburg, Va, I stopped in Petersburg. The original plan was to hit as many Seven Days battlefield sites as I could on the way back home, but since I was with my OLDEST brother Jerry, I opted to visit a few of the sites at which our great-grandfather, John B. Smeltzer, had fought with his regiment, the 205th PA. That meant Petersburg. In the process, we also visited The Crater, since it’s within the boundaries of the Petersburg National Battlefield. Below are a few photos from that visit. Click the images for larger ones – I think they’re all pretty much self-explanatory. The crater itself is fairly small, but consider the erosion over the years and the use of the site as a golf course for a while. I suspect the remnants are more impressive from atop the works, but access is for good reason restricted.

 

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Fort Morton, the 14 gun battery from which Ambrose Burnside observed the Battle of the Crater

 

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Fredericksburg – 9/28/2016

6 10 2016

Last week, after stopping in to visit with John Hennessy at Chatham, I set out for Williamsburg. My original intent was to visit the battlefield at Malvern Hill along the way, but the weather was bad and I was burning daylight. So I decided to do a quick turn at the Fredericksburg battlefield’s visitor center and the Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights. I hadn’t been there in quite a few years. Here are some photos I snapped as my phone battery died. Click on them for larger images.

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Chatham – 9/28/2016

4 10 2016

Last week, I took a little trip down to Williamsburg, Va, for three days of golf with my brother Jerry. Friend John Hennessy invited me to stop on the way to chat and lunch, so I took him up on his offer. We yakked in his office upstairs at Chatham for a while (said hi to Frank O’Reilly, whom I had not seen in years, and later on the lawn reader Barry Larkin), then had lunch at Foode, which is located in the 1820 National Bank of Fredericksburg building. In fact, we ate in the vault! Abraham Lincoln visited this building in the spring of 1862. All in all I spent about 3 hours talking to Mr. Hennessy – the good news for us is that he was receptive to another Bull Runnings tour, perhaps in the Fall of 2017. I then headed off on my way to Williamsburg. Below are some photos of Chatham and the bank building. Click on the thumbs for larger versions.

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Repro pontoon section

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The notes of “Home Sweet Home”

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These catalpas may have been described by Walt Whitman after the Battle of Fredericksburg

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