John Hennessy Leads the Way (Who Will Follow?)

There is no public historian that I respect more than John Hennessy, who is currently the National Park Service’s chief historian at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. John has led the way in pushing the boundaries of battlefield interpretation and our broader national discussion over the course of the Civil War sesquicentennial. As Brooks Simpson put it in a recent post, John “is one of the jewels of the National Park Service.”

It would be easy to lay low over the last few weeks given the strong emotions exhibited by so many over the public display of the Confederate battle flag and the place of Civil War monuments on our many commemorative landscapes, but if ever we needed the NPS to educate and challenge the general public and foster constructive debate it is now.

Thankfully, John has not taken the easy road. He fully embraces his responsibility to push park visitors to think about the tough questions related to how we think about and how we remember our Civil War. He has done this even in the face of online threats and protest.

Here is John discussing the history and memory of the Confederate flag just after the shootings and in the midst of the first wave of calls to remove the flag in Columbia, South Carolina.

Last night John led an evening tour of the monuments on the Spotsylvania battlefield. He weaved together the history of the battle, the story of the slaves who lived on the property, the dedication of the monuments and how all of this has come to frame our current divide over history and memory. I know of no other branch of the NPS or any other historical institution that is directly addressing this sudden interest in Civil War memory.

You can listen to John’s entire presentation here.

4 comments… add one
  • Patrick Jennings Jul 31, 2015 @ 10:37

    The American Battlefield Preservation Program is among the lead groups working on this kind of thing.

  • John Heiser Jul 26, 2015 @ 7:20

    John is right on the button, Kevin. He has changed many things in interpretive themes at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP and has always been prepared to take the high road in such discussions. The National Park Service has been willing to discuss issues concerning the symbolism of the CS flag, race, discourse and memory for many years, as a far back as the 1990’s with the “Rally on the High Ground” mandate and have been doing so ever since though limited by having a proper setting and platform for such discussion without taking away the premise of the events of the site, be it a battlefield, historic home, cemetery, or place of notable events. John ‘s sensible approach to history and all of its controversies are a high note with the NPS.

  • Kathy Miller Jul 26, 2015 @ 1:47

    He is the best. Great historian.

  • Michael Walters Jul 25, 2015 @ 11:58

    Fantastic commentary. Thank you for sharing!

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