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.
I see that I’ve touched a nerve by commenting on Stone Mountain and recent discussions about the portrayal of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. I’ve seen a lot of passion, but not a lot of reason, in some of the responses.
Stone Mountain, Georgia, is many things to many people, but one cannot dispute that it is a place that celebrates Confederate heritage. Sometimes the connection might make some people feel uneasy (not so for others). Nor is it the first time the Confederate carvings there have been the subject of controversy. But here we are again, as people discuss what to do with Stone Mountain … if anything.
Last weekend, Confederate heritage activist Anthony Hervey died as a result of a car accident in Mississippi. He was returning from a Confederate heritage rally in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was a featured speaker.
With Hervey was Arlene Barnum, who told authorities that the car accident was no accident at all, but was the result of a car chasing Hervey and Barnum.
Mississippi authorities are investigating the accident. Other folks, however, took Barnum’s story and ran with it. Soon there appeared claims that Hervey was murdered, that it was a hate crime, and Hervey was a martyr to Confederate heritage. Others began questioning Barnum’s account.
Readers of this blog will recall a series of recent reports concerning internet threats made by someone styling themselves “Anonymous CSA.” We note that the videos have been taken down after people protested their presence: Anonymous CSA’s Facebook page also vanished. Also vanishing was a previous post put up by Anonymous CSA back in January 2015 that targeted the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The targets were people who appear to be especial favorites of the Virginia Flaggers … especially one Flagger.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is meeting in Richmond at a time when many of its members believe that Confederate heritage is under attack.
How so? Well, listen to Ben “Cooter” Jones, the chief of heritage operations for the organization as well as an entrepreneur:
The nation has been wrestling with Confederate symbolism in the wake of a shooting that left nine people dead last month at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. After photos emerged of the accused shooter posing with the Confederate battle flag, elected officials have moved to end government-sanctioned displays of the Confederate emblem, and some have discussed the removal of Confederate monuments. Private retailers have also stripped Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves. Early this month, the TV Land network pulled “The Dukes of Hazzard” from its schedule.
On Thursday, Jones compared the decision to book burning by the Nazis.
“It’s the same kind of totalitarian and demagogic thinking that leads to things like that,” Jones said. “Don’t doubt it.”
Cancelling “The Dukes of Hazzard” is equivalent to book burning by the Nazis? What’s next? Is Daisy Duke going to be compared to Anne Frank?
But that’s not all …
During the convention’s opening ceremony Thursday morning, a J.E.B. Stuart impersonator said, “Richmond is once again the center of the Confederate way of life.”
“The days of Reconstruction are upon us again,” said Stuart, portrayed by Wayne Jones. “And this time, we must prevail.”
The days of Reconstruction were never upon Jeb Stuart, folks. He was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864, and died the next day.
And who must prevail … the supporters of white supremacy? Again?
No word yet on whether Tripp Lewis plans to expose various misdeeds … or is that Anonymous CSA?
That’s right … the coach of the University of Alabama’s football team, Nick Saban, comes out against the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.
The same University of Alabama where there was this governor named George Wallace who tried to prevent African Americans from attending that university. Governor Wallace was fond of that flag.
Funny, isn’t it, that passionate supporters of both the University of Alabama’s football program and the Confederate flag don’t put those things together? I wonder why they don’t call for a return to the old days of an all-white football team. Even Bear Bryant thought otherwise in his own deliberate way.
But there will always be some people who put bigotry and their mindless embrace of what they pretend is “heritage” above common sens and human decency.
Like this Alabama fan:
Oh, yes, I’m sure this is all about heritage, not hate. Riiiight.
Watch this tape …
Recall Pat Hines? This guy? The guy who advocated the murder of schoolchildren is now whining about cultural genocide?
Never tell me that Confederate heritage advocates never have anything to do with such people … and the same goes for the League of the South.
Let’s call people by their right names. Let’s ask Michael Hill why he trusts this person to do his bidding.
Let’s not confuse first steps with final steps. There’s still work to do.
I’ve seen some recent commentary elsewhere about the balance between activism and scholarship, commentary that I think easy to question if not to dismiss almost altogether. But it’s always a good idea to check how one’s personal feelings and sentiments play into one’s scholarship and commentary. Now that the Confederate Battle Flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state house, let me share some personal observations.
The flag is down. The struggle and the discussion continues.