I Love Emails Like This!

3 02 2009

I received this earlier today:

Hi Harry:

I enjoy your blog very much–it’s interesting to me to read (again) source material that I had once intensely examined, long ago, before I knew much of anything about the world, and to see if my take on it remains as it was.  Generally it does, but I’m always curious.  I know I could go back and read the stuff myself, but it’s more fun (to be honest) just reading it as you string it out there.  Anyway, you do a very nice job.

My question:  I have files full of First Manassas stuff, which I would be happy to share if you’d like.  Every once in a while you put something up that stimulates me to go find other things–for example, I found that I have a WONDERFUL letter about Upton at Blackburn’s, busting him as a pretty West Point boy, after you had put up a couple of Upton related things a while back.  But, I don’t know whether you have all this stuff already…or even want it.

So, I ask.  Want me to send cool stuff along? 

John [Hennessy]

For those of you who don’t already know, John Hennessy is the NPS Chief Historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park and author of a fine study of First Bull Run as well as one of the all-time classic Civil War campaign histories.  Of course I said YES.  This site has benefited tremendously from contributions by readers, and it looks like it will continue to do so.  Thanks, John!

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9 responses

4 02 2009

That is really neat! I read Mr. Hennessy’s Second Manassas Book and found it to be one of the best battle histories I had ever read not just about a American Civil War battle but any battle. Hennessy and Cozzens’ ‘This Terrible Sound’ about Chickamauga are two of my favorite campaign histories of all time.
Thanks for another cool post,

5 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Return to Bull Run is on my top 10 list. The first (and only) time I met John I asked him to sign my copy. While he did so, I asked if there was anything he would change in the book (wise guy that I am, I asked if he would emphasize Jackson’s two hour delay in joining Longstreet’s assault). Surprisingly, he said there were some things he’d change. From that moment I’ve kept in mind that whatever book you read, no matter how good or bad, it only provides a snapshot of the author’s thinking at that point in time. The day after it was sent to press, he may have changed his mind about any of it.
And that’s the beauty of Digital History – instant revised editions!

5 02 2009

I agree completely. Battle history is always evolving with new evidence and accounts. About Hennesssy’s book I remember being struck about how awesome it was when I first picked it up. It just took a couple of days to read it. I felt I was there in the railroad cut with Stonewall Jackson’s men throwing rocks and engaging in hand to hand fighting. And his account of James Longstreet’s flank assault was truly riveting. I just loved how he stuck you right in the middle of the action. Have you ever read ‘Unto This Hour’ by Tom Wicker- a novel on Second Manassas? In its own way it is also a fascinating read.
Thanks for your reply,

5 02 2009
John Hennessy

Chris, Harry: Thanks for your kind words. In reference to our conversation way back when (which I remember well), I have been pondering a good deal those things I used to believe about the Second Manassas Campaign but have since changed my thinking. In fact, I have the beginnings of an article that constitutes a review of my own book, highlighting those things about it I like and don’t like, and those things I would change if I could. Almost all that I don’t like relates to context and is derived from what seems to me now to be a rather odd, sometimes silly approach I took in writing the book.

When I wrote, nobody had written anything meaningful about Second Manassas for more than 100 years. I decided to simply start from scratch–and I determined at the outset that I would not even look at secondary sources until I had come to my own conclusions. That’s fine when mucking around in detail. But in the realm of content, that approach can lead to some wobbly interpretations–not to mention MUCH more work, since you’re ignoring all the prior work of others. It’s a bit like building a car from scratch, and determining to reinvent the wheel yourself.

Anyway, while I’m generally satisfied with Return to Bull Run, I think its weakest component is in the analysis of McClellan–his actions and his motivations. At the root, I succumbed to a personality based interpretation of McClellan, taking refuge (sometimes comical, sometimes damning) in his ungraceful words, attributing much to an aberrant, self-absorbed personality. I’m no McClellan admirer on that account (I think he failed in many of the important ways that are absolutely essential to success in any organization, like getting along with your boss), but I don’t believe I understood and presented fairly the intense forces at work on McClellan. Nor did I write in sufficient breadth about McClellan’s leadership of what I have come to call the “Conservative Patriots” within the army–men whose vision of the war was legitimate, though vastly different than the Radicals’ and even Lincoln’s. Instead, I took the easy way out–snapping off damning quotes from McClellan, and representing him as purely the product of a self-interested personality rather than as the public voice (as was Porter) of a valid political-military vision of a conservative approach to the war.

I didn’t miss entirely on these issues (especially as they relate to Porter), but if I had to do it over again, I’d take McClellan on a bit differently. My views on him as a person haven’t changed too much, but my understanding of the forces that buffeted him has.

On the other hand, I am sorry to say that I have had no such revelations about First Manassas–largely because I was never as immersed in First Manassas as Second (in fact, I didn’t really get interested in First Manassas until AFTER I had left the NPS there). My First Manassas stuff, while useful in the interim, will without question be superceded (in some areas, it has been already). Because of the swirl of confusion, it’s difficult to write about any aspect of the battle with certainty. Maybe, Harry, you can figure it all out once and for all…!

18 03 2010
C Sears

Was just wondering if a revised edition of “Return to Bull Run” was in the works?
C Sears

18 03 2010
Harry Smeltzer


I’m not aware of one. I’ll ask John next time we correspond.

5 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer


No, I’ve never read the Wicker book.


Thanks for saying you remember our meeting, but I ain’t buying it.

I’m looking forward to the article. Like a growing number of folks, my thoughts on McClellan have evolved significantly over the years. Any idea where this aricle may appear?

I agree with you re: First Bull Run – I think some things will never be known for sure, due to the fluid commands and lack of good after action reports. Your book and Ethan Rafuse’s are the two I recommend to folks who are looking for a tactical study – I also liked Detzer’s book. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it all out, but I hope this site can help in increasing our understanding.

5 02 2009

Thanks Mr. Hennessy for your insightful reply. I agree about McClellan. He is a very complicated figure and is hard to paint as all good or bad in my opinion. Rafuse’s book on him made me see him in a different light from Sears book.

Mr. Smeltzer,
I agree with your opinion on the Detzer book. I found him to be fascinating in his different opinions about some officers and his detail on the battle. It is a pity that his maps were not any better than the ones that are in the softcover edition that are old and hard to read. But, as you have said before on the site First Manassas is a pretty tough battle to map in the first place. Maybe one day you could write a book on First Mannassas that would have Hennessy’s detail and have excellent maps to boot.

Thanks again,

6 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer


I don’t know about a book. I don’t think of this site as something “in addition to” or “in lieu of” or “supportive of” a book. But there may be some sort of print material in my future. Who’s to say?

Personally I think John’s maps are pretty good. As he points out, there are peculiar difficulties with mapping First Bull Run. For one thing, a lot of the Federal units were out of service within a few weeks of the battle. Many regiments did not file reports, and report writing was new to the officers who did write them. In addition, there was a lot of misinformation floating around. Plus, commands were fluid, with elements of different regiments, brigades and even divisions fighting together in ad hoc groups.

I’ll add that Brad Gottfried has an Atlas in the works that should be released by Savas-Beatie this year (maybe soon, but you can never tell). I’ll post updates on that here as details become available.

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