Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Influential Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania chief historian John Hennessy is hanging up his hat after a 40-year NPS career

John J. Hennessy, who says his role was to reflect the evolution of thought on key events in the American story, is retiring this month as chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia.

Tuesday (Sept. 1) was his last day of work at the site.

Hennessy last month announced on Facebook the upcoming conclusion of his 40-year service with the agency, which started as a seasonal employee at Manassas National Battlefield Park and continued at Fredericksburg, where he held his position for two decades.

The Delmar, N.Y. native said he hopes to do more historic interpretation and writing. He is the author of several Civil War books, including “Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas.” He has contributed to “Mysteries and Conundrums,” the park’s blog, and maintains his own website “Remembering.”

“The world has changed incredibly in 40 years, and our business of public history has changed along with it,” Hennessy wrote on Facebook. “I cannot imagine a better time and place to be a public historian. Never has our work as public historians been more important to our nation.

After he announced his retirement, hundreds of followers thanked Hennessy for his service at Manassas and Fredericksburg, including leading tours and speaking at events.

One wrote, “You were the historian working the Manassas Battlefield when my Mom and Dad drove down from Massachusetts in the ‘80s for a visit. My Great Grandfather had fought for the 44th New York at ... Manassas, and you spent the time explaining where he fought, pointing to the ridge/fields. We will always be grateful for you, John.”

Hennessy was of help to the Picket over the years, including articles over the death of a Georgia general at Fredericksburg and the search for a burial site for Federal soldiers who died in the battle.

Fredericksburg Superintendent Kirsten Talken-Spaulding told the Picket that Hennessy’s “contributions are extensive and ongoing.  While he is retiring from the NPS, he will still be contributing to the annals of scholarship of history.  For that we should all be grateful.”

Civil War historians Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin have extolled Hennessy for pushing the boundaries of interpretation of battlefields and factors contributing to the war and their legacy today, including the Confederate battle flag. They say Hennessy faced criticism from some, but stood firm.

“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,” Simpson wrote in 2015.

In 2011, the historian spoke with the Daily Gazette in his native New York about his interest in the Civil War.

“My dad took me to Antietam in the fourth grade, but I don’t remember too much about the trip. I do remember that in the fifth grade I wrote a book about the Civil War that was 87 pages long. I can’t imagine what I said, but ever since then I’ve read a lot and was always interested in history.” He told the newspaper he considers Antietam to be the most compelling Civil War battle site.

Hennessy has said he originally expected to pursue a business career and his time at Manassas would be a brief break between college after graduating in 1980 and joining the “real world.” It turned into a four-decade career with the NPS.

Before joining the staff at Fredericksburg in 1995, Hennessy worked at the New York State Historic Preservation Office and Harpers Ferry Center.

Of working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Hennessy told the Daily Gazette: “What’s unique about us here is that our story illustrates vividly how the war touched all kinds of different people, not just the soldiers. Traditionally, our story has been told through the soldiers’ eyes, but here we talk about civilians and slaves, and how this community was just consumed by the war. The surrounding landscape was devastated by the two opposing armies for almost two years, and it’s a story with a lot of texture and richness, and it reverberates throughout the American landscape. The story here is told in all sorts of ways: politically, socially and militarily.”

Hennessy wrote last year on his personal blog that while the NPS should not be an agent of social change, public historians have an important role to play in the process of change.

“Using the best scholarship available and thoughtful and dynamic presentation, we need to illuminate brightly the path that brought us to where we are, and then hope that our programs prompt listeners and readers use that information (and, perhaps, inspiration) thoughtfully as they engage in the ongoing quest to improve our nation.”

The park paid tribute to the historian in a Facebook post on Sept. 10.

“He wrote many of our visitor center exhibits and interpretive signs and established many popular park programs such as the History at Sunset series. Over the years, John's efforts have made the history on the ground come alive.”

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