BR: I’m pretty sure most Bull Runnings readers are familiar with your work, and many to some extent with you, but for those who aren’t, what’s the thumbnail sketch of John Hennessy up to this point?
JH: My career might constitute the most successful and enduring adolescent delaying tactic in history. When I got out of college (I studied both history and management), I wanted to get a job I liked for a summer before I entered the slog of the real world (thinking I would ultimately pursue finance or some such lucrative-but-un-thrilling path). So, I got a job at Manassas Battlefield, hired by Mike Andrus and Dave Ruth (now the superintendent at Richmond NB). That whirlwind summer changed my life. One summer turned into most of a year, then another….and finally a career. I haven’t entered the real world yet.
Since those happy Manassas days, I have worked for the New York State Historic Preservation Office, the NPS Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry (doing interpretive and exhibit planning for parks throughout the NPS), and finally at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. I arrived there in 1995 as Assistant Superintendent and in 2001 transitioned to the Chief Historian’s position. There I still reside, challenged every day and the beneficiary of a truly outstanding staff of history professionals.
Along the way I have written a few books, most notably Return to Bull Run, which came out in 1993. Most years my professional duties with the NPS have been so consuming that I have had little time for writing of my own. I still punch out a few articles and essays each year, but not nearly as much as I would like.
BR: So, why history, and why the Manassas?
JH: Rainy days inspired my interest in history as a kid. Rainy days gave me the chance to read, and I found I loved biographies and history. I am not alone in pointing to two books as inspiration for an interest in the Civil War: McKinlay Kantor’s Gettysburg and the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. I still remember vividly the trill of reading Kantor’s book on a dark, drippy afternoon with my bedside light on. And I do believe I came to know every one of those tiny men in the great landscape portrayals in American Heritage. Every one.
Transforming an interest in history to a career in history honestly never occurred to me until I arrived at Manassas. My determination that first summer was to leave behind at the park some piece of research that mattered—something that told us things we didn’t already know. As I dug deeper, I realized that a great deal remained to be understood about the battles and field–especially Second Manassas. At that time, for me, one thing drove me more than any other: the desire to accord significance to the ground—to be able to give visitors the experience of understanding what happened RIGHT HERE at a given moment more than a century ago.
That rather narrow quest spun up into efforts to better understand the battles in a larger sense. In 1983, I floated the idea to the park of using the research I was then doing as the basis for a set of troop movement maps for Second Manassas. I can see now that that was my great career break. That work got the attention and support of Ed Bearss, who was then the Chief Historian of the NPS, and it gave me a chance to do a level of research that quite honestly has been the foundation for everything I have done since. For me, those were exciting days that few historians will ever have a chance to match.
I left the NPS for a time in 1986, and only then did I decide to write books about Manassas. For most of five years I worked on both An End to Innocence and what would become Return to Bull Run.
A funny thing about An End to Innocence: when I worked at the park, I wasn’t much intrigued by First Manassas. Only after I left the NPS did I start to think seriously about the battle, its significance, and the conventional wisdom that governs it. I wrote the book over about a six-month period in 1988-89. Its scope is fairly narrow–closely focused on the battle itself. There is a reason for that: at the time, the best book on First Manassas was William C. Davis’s Battle at Bull Run. Davis is a beautiful writer and a thoughtful historian. He did a tremendous job on the campaign at large and the battle’s context. But at the park, we always felt like he didn’t quite get right the battle itself. And so I wrote my book to fill that gap, and to avoid treading on subject matter he had already handled so well.
BR: Are there any writers/historians who influence your writing?
JH: When I get stuck in my writing, I pull out Freeman or Furgurson to get my literary mind working again. As for inspiration, there’s no question that Sears’s Landscape Turned Red helped shape my vision of what a battle or campaign study should be. Beautifully written and organized.
BR: An End to Innocence has been out, what? over 25 years now, and it’s recognized as a standard (to me, THE standard) tactical study of the First Battle of Bull Run. What prompted you to do a new edit?
JH: Stackpole Books inquired about reprinting the book at about the same time I had started thinking that I should do something new with it. At that point I envisioned only small edits and additions—nothing major.
But then I started reading it again. I doubt most authors spend much time reading their own books, and I honestly hadn’t read anything but pieces of the book in years (mostly to prepare for tours). I had always liked it fairly well, but now…. Didn’t like the opening. Rewrote that. Found a good deal of passive voice and some awkward constructions. Slayed those. And as I went, I increasingly felt the narrative lacked richness, power. In some places a vagueness betrayed my uncertainty; in other places I knew I had, since 1989, gathered more powerful source material that could be woven in.
Pretty quickly a two-week edit turned into a three-month rewrite. I didn’t rewrite the whole book, but probably 80% of it.
BR: So, what IS new in this edition? Was there anything that really surprised you along the way? And how much was that affected by the availability of material, or by a maturation in your own thought processes?
JH: I shudder when I think how little I really knew about the Civil War and American history when I wrote this book in the late ‘80s. Then, my (and many others’) focus was on the accumulation of knowledge—adding detail, incorporating new sources. Today, I think we prize understanding to a far greater degree, and we demand that knowledge and understanding be interwoven.
I think I understand the First Battle of Manassas far better today than I did then—its fabric, its nature, and why it mattered.
Back then, I saw the battlefield landscape as mere tableau—a playing field for armies. Today, and in this edition, I pay a good deal more attention to the people who lived there, recognizing that this was a living space whose residents were deeply affected by what happened there. This is a general trend in Civil War historiography, and it’s a good one.
Since 1989, we have accumulated probably 150-200 new sources on the battle, many of which are now posted on Bull Runnings (more on that later). We are at a point in the historiography of the Civil War that most of the new sources that emerge simply reinforce things we already know. But sometimes they prompt some re-thinking, and a re-examination of sources one might not have given a thought to in years. An example: we have always presumed that the 11th New York and 1st Minnesota were the only two Union regiments atop Henry Hill at the first exchange of infantry fire. But we now know that the 38th NY was there too—farther off to the left, but without question engaged with Jackson’s line at the same time the Fire Zouaves were suffering their fall from fame and grace. Similarly, we have always presumed, as Burnside asserted, that Sykes’s Regulars played a major role in averting Union disaster at the height of the fighting on Matthews Hill. A closer look makes clear that’s all wrong, and there is little question about it. The Hampton Legion, the Mississippians with Bee, Barnard’s reconnaissance on July 19-20—all emerge with a slightly different hue thanks to new sources and a forced reconsideration.
By far the biggest challenge in the rewrite revolved around Irvin McDowell. In the original, I treated McDowell as something of a caricature –embracing conventional wisdom and the relentless cascade of simplicities that seem to revolve around him. This time around I took more time and, I think, a more thoughtful approach.
You had something to do with that. Your writings on the blog about McDowell, elusive though they may yet be, helped push me to take a close, second look at this much maligned man (I was really hard on him in my Second Manassas book) and, especially, his plan for battle. I wait anxiously to learn if you agree with my conclusions about McDowell (all of us of course want to stay on Harry’s good side), but in any event, my treatment of McDowell, the circumstances he faced, and his response as the battle progressed amount to probably the most important substantive revision of the book—less simplistic, more nuanced, more intent on understanding rather than simply narrating.
Some other new things: I include a good deal about the civilian spectators, both Union and (yes) Confederate. If Americans know one thing about Manassas, it’s that civilians came out to watch. I look closely at their experience, their role in affecting the Union retreat, and the important legacy produced by their bearing witness to Union disaster.
I also take a much closer look at the aftermath of battle. The combat itself shocked the soldiers. The aftermath shocked the nation. On this field were the first major field hospitals of the Civil War. Here were buried the first great numbers of dead. To this place came hundreds of curious onlookers and souvenir seekers. All these things tell us a great deal about how this battle reverberated across the nation, North and South.
And finally, really, how did the battle affect the people of the North and the Confederacy? Is the conventional wisdom that it shocked the nation to action true? Did Southerners really believe victory meant independence? I touched on these things only slightly in the original. These questions get more rigorous treatment in the new edition.
BR: What types of sources did you rely on most, and how did that change between the first edition and this one?
JH: For the new edition, I did only a bit of targeted research (most of that when I was preparing for the 150th in 2011). Instead, over the years I accumulated First Manassas things as I found them, throwing them into my files or, more recently, turning them into digital files (about half my research is now in digital form, and I hope eventually to phase out my 15 or so boxes of 5 x 8 cards entirely). I regularly check sites online for new material, and I have always been a bit of a maniac about wartime newspapers. The number of wartime papers online increases all the time, and many of them include primary sources worth looking at. (In fact, since I sent off the manuscript just four months ago, another dozen or so new sources have tumbled onto my desk).
Of course by far the best website for new material on First Manassas is Bull Runnings. In fact, it’s the best compilation of online material related to a specific Civil War engagement ANYWHERE (you can quote me on that).
One thing I surely noticed: Back in the 1980s, it was simply impossible to lay hands on some published sources. Today, many of those elusive sources are available digitally. As an example, my treatment of Extra Billy Smith and the 49th VA benefitted greatly from access to his writings, which I could not get in 1988. The digital age is a boon.
As I worked through the rewrite, I went back and re-examined literally every source I used or quoted in the original. Often I found I had overlooked a good passage or an important point my first time through. This process of reassessing sources prompted a good deal of the rewriting I did.
BR: Can you describe your writing process?
JH: I just write. I suppose I have in my brain an outline of what I am going to do, but I am not usually conscious of it, and I never put it on paper in outline form. My life is pretty busy, so I often got only small snatches of time for writing each day—often only 30 or 40 minutes. Once was, that would have been a disaster. But my writing “voice” has developed enough that I can fairly easily jump in and out of writing as circumstances command.
When I did get blocks of time to write, on a typical night I might get in 800 words. If I had a day, maybe 2,000. Writing is like building a brick wall. If you imagine the whole thing, it’s daunting. All you can do is the little bit in front of you—put the thoughts and sentences and passages together one-by-one.
BR: What’s next for you?
JH: My writing career has always been an inverse indicator of the fulsomeness of my career: when I have been challenged greatly at work, I hardly have the energy to write at home. But when those periods come along when 9-5 work is less stimulating (remember, I work for the government, so it happens), I look to get my intellectual jollies by writing. For the moment, my NPS work is pretty demanding. I will do occasional articles or essays, but likely not much more in the near term.
But, I am only a few years from retirement, and writing is what I plan to do when it comes. My great interest is the Army of the Potomac, and especially its relationship with the government and people it served. I am also much interested in its subordinate command. I expect I will write about both those topics. I also have an emerging itch to write a book about the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia. I’ll also someday write about the town of Fredericksburg during the war, slavery and freedom hereabouts, and perhaps a few things well outside the well-trod intellectual and literary terrain of the Civil War period.
One last thing: sometime, perhaps in the spring, we ought to convene a Bull Runnings outing at Manassas for you, your readers, or anyone else who wants to come along–walk the ground, and hash through some of the mysteries and conundrums that remain. It’d be fun. I’m game if you and your people are.
BR: What do you think, Bull Runners? Does that sound like fun? Something you’d be interested in? Maybe the first ever Bull Runnings muster! We’ll see how it plays out, but your feedback is key.