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.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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6 comments… add one
  • Richard Maryatt Sep 5, 2021 @ 10:59

    My wife Barbara & I had the honor & pleasure of joining John’s Hennessey’s Civil War History Tour in October 1987. He was simply wonderful focusing on the common soldier’s experience & reading many of their unpublished letters that he himself had found & researched. A most memorable moment was when we visited the Antietam Battlefield Monument at the end of the day when the sun was going down creating some dramatic lighting as he read from a soldier’s letter home. He had us all in tears. We will never forget his kind & caring demeanor with us & our group. He may not remember us due to the passage of time but it is our hope you can let him know for us that we will always be appreciative if him & the unique experience we had so long ago.
    Richard & Barbara Maryatt
    P.S. I have since discovered that I had two brother relatives that fought in the war with the 124th New York. We visited Gettysburg a few days before John’s tour & did not realize at the time we were walking on the same ground as William & James when they fought on Houcks Ridge & Devil’s Den. John might get a chuckle out it if he knew.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2021 @ 12:26

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks so much for sharing this personal story. I am sure John will see and appreciate it.

  • 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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