Listening to John Hennessy

John Hennessy is one of the jewels of the National Park Service. The chief historian of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park combines the talents of a skilled military historian with an ability to reflect upon the broader issues of war and peace, slavery and emancipation, and history and memory. During the Civil War sesquicentennial he played a major role in helping Americans to understand what had happened between 1861 and 1865 and what generations since made of it.

What follows are several of John’s more memorable commentaries. Together they make for a good weekend’s listening.

In 2012 he discussed how the Union army became an army of liberation (filled with reluctant liberators) in and about Fredericksburg as emancipation took effect:

Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage is often assumed to describe the battle for Chancellorsville, and John took that as his point of departure in 2013:

The following year, John described the horrors of the battle of the Wilderness:

Finally, in 2015, John spoke at the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House.

Earlier this year he reflected upon the legacies of the American Civil War.

Finally, thanks to Ted Schubel, you can hear John reflect last night on how we understand history as he spoke at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania. It’s John at his best.

Interested readers can find more videos at blogs run by Kevin Levin and Albert Mackey.

John Hennessy’s worth listening to because he has something to say, and that something makes you think and reflect. Sometimes what he says upsets certain people, who seem afraid of listening and thinking. That’s to be expected: it’s hard to say something worthwhile without disturbing someone, and if you don’t make people think, you might very well be wasting your time. Listening to John is never a waste of your time.

9 thoughts on “Listening to John Hennessy

  1. Pat Young July 25, 2015 / 3:26 am

    I was lucky enough to meet John very briefly during the Overland Campaign 150th ceremonies at Spotsylvania. It was the highlight of my visit to thank him for his excellent work on behalf of the American people by expanding our understanding of the relationship between these sites where horrible things happened and the country we are becoming.

  2. Damian Shiels July 25, 2015 / 5:21 am

    He is an incredibly powerful speaker- I had the great privilege to be at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania to hear him. A credit to the National Park Service and an example of how public history should be experienced the world over.

  3. Kevin July 25, 2015 / 5:36 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I live close to FRSP so I get to hear John on a regular basis. Always compelling. On a side note, I never thought as a Flyers fan I would read such high praise of a Penguins fan written by an Islanders fan. We truly can set aside our differences.

  4. Joshism July 25, 2015 / 9:56 am

    Hennessey’s “Return to Bull Run” is also an outstanding book.

  5. Sandi Saunders July 25, 2015 / 10:12 am

    He is a very knowledgeable and an extremely capable speaker and that is so important to trying to understand our history in the scope of its entirety not just through the prism of one “side” or POV. I had not been aware of his presentations before this, so thank you very much for spotlighting such a vivid historian. I am enjoying these videos very much.

  6. Rosieo July 25, 2015 / 2:24 pm

    What if his listeners did not believe him and just argued and argued? What would he do after he walked away?

  7. John Foskett July 26, 2015 / 8:26 am

    The small lens/big lens analogy is very well-done. And he very ably conveys that there is little doubt why the Confederate “nation” went to war but that the motivation(s) of individuals who enlisted cannot be summarized nearly so easily. Manning’s work has shown that slavery was one factor for far more individuals on the Confederate side than the apologists would have us believe. And Glathaar has shown the large dichotomy between the percentage of individual soldiers who actually owned slaves and the percentage whose families owned slaves. But in any one case, whether that was a motivation, or the motivation, is for the most part impossible to establish. There were almost certainly young men who wanted to go off on their own for the first time, or who just got caught up in the excitement, or who succumbed to peer pressure, or ……

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