Virginia Real
9/24/2009
Civil War battles and Revolutionary times come to life in and around Manassas, Va., where history loves company."

The Civil War may have been the best thing ever to happen to Manassas, Va. Though it probably didn't seem like it at the time, the nation's bloody conflict — whose first real battle was fought here, near Bull Run Creek — helped to spark the development of Manassas. Before the war and the 1858 arrival of the railroad line that made Manassas a strategic military point, this area about 30 miles southeast of Washington, DC, was mostly farm country. Manassas wasn't even formally chartered as a town until 1873, when war veterans from both sides began settling in the verdant land they'd seen under less-pleasant circumstances. Ironically, it was an entrepreneurial Union veteran, George Carr Round, who really established today's town of Manassas — not far from where his side had suffered such a surprising defeat on July 21, 1861, signaling that the Civil War would last much longer than the picnicking onlookers from the capital ever dreamed.

In the more than 150 years since that battle, Manassas and much of surrounding Prince William County, Va., have grown into bedroom communities for Washington and its booming office-park environs. Commuters routinely line up at designated pickup points to take potluck for the drive into the city: The passengers get a ride; the driver, a complete stranger, gets enough passengers to qualify for the speedy high-occupancy-vehicle lane. On weekends, the traffic surges in the opposite direction as shoppers flock to Potomac Mills (exit 156 or 158B off 1-95, 703-643-1770, <www.potomacmills.com>), Virginia's biggest outlet mall and its eighth-most-popular tourist attraction.