Q & A: Civil War historian found his calling in summer job

John Hennessy always had an interest in history, but after graduating from the University at Albany
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John Hennessy always had an interest in history, but after graduating from the University at Albany in 1980, he wasn’t quite ready to begin what he thought would be a lifelong career in business.

Instead, in an effort to enjoy one last summer before entering the real world, Hennessy, a Delmar native, took a job at the Manassas Battlefield in Virginia with the National Park Service. Thirty years later, he is still at the park service telling visitors about the Civil War, and for the last 10 years he has served as the chief historian/chief of interpretation at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia.

During his time at Manassas and Fredericksburg, the 1976 Bethlehem Central High graduate has written three books relating to the Civil War. His 2001 work, “Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas,” drew rave reviews from renowned Civil War scholars like James McPherson and Gary Gallagher, and was named one of the top 100 Civil War books of all time by Civil War Magazine.

Civil War Sesquicentennial Dinner

WHERE: The Century House, Route 9, Latham

WHEN: Friday, 6 p.m. refreshments, 7 p.m. dinner

HOW MUCH: $50 (dinner and conference, $110)

MORE INFO: 459-4209, capitaldistrictcivilwarroundtable.club.officelive.com

This Friday night at the Century House in Latham, Hennessy will be the keynote speaker at the Capital District Civil War Round Table’s Sesquicentennial Dinner. On Saturday at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, the Round Table will conduct its inaugural Civil War Memorial Conference in honor of former member Sue Knost, who died in December of 2010.

Civil War Sesquicentennial Conference

WHERE: New York State Military Museum, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 9:15 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday

HOW MUCH: $70 (dinner and conference, $110)

MORE INFO: 459-4209, capitaldistrictcivilwarroundtable.club.officelive.com

Hennessy will be among the featured presenters on Saturday, along with Patrick Schroeder, author and chief historian at the Appomattox Court House National Military Park; Civil War author Juanita Leach, who wrote “Who Wore What” and “Introduction to Civil War Civilians”; and Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum.

Q: When did you become interested in history?

A: 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.

Q: When did you start working for the National Park Service?

A: My degree from Albany was a business degree, but I also had a second major in history, and after graduating I decided to get a job I liked for the summer before heading into the real world. I went to the Park Service, got a job at Manassas, and I haven’t entered the real world yet. I’ve been very fortunate. I had a blast talking to people about the Civil War, and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for it. Usually, the farther you move up in an organization the farther you get away from the reason you went into in the first place. But all these years later, I still think that I have a pretty cool job.

Q: What is special about the Civil War sites at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania?

A: 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.

Q: How do you respond to people who argue that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery?

A: The argument between states’ rights and slavery is like the distinction between the management style a company uses and the product it delivers. The South was hoping to preserve their states’ rights, and its culture at that time was one that revolved around slavery. Not totally perhaps, but if you look back at the rhetoric of that period, the issue used to inspire Southerners to endorse secession was almost always slavery. At the same time, some people in the country were realizing that a nation beset with slavery couldn’t prosper in an enlightened world, so it was the national government that was changing, while the Confederacy was trying to keep things the way they were.

Q: Why is the debate over the Civil War still such a hot topic today?

A: America has gone through a long process of trying to reconcile itself with the war and make amends for the cost of the war. The war brought on a great division in this country, and in the name of reconciliation some messier aspects of the war and that period have been overlooked. All of our national parks try to use the best scholarship available when we convey our history, and sometimes that isn’t exactly the same as what’s come down to us by tradition. Sometimes the farther south you go the more firmly established tradition there is, and there is often a tension between that tradition and the actual history. Our job as public historians is to facilitate that conversation, and use the best tradition and the best scholarship available to advance our story.

Q: Do you have a favorite Civil War battle site?

A: I try to avoid using the word favorite when I talk about these horrible places of death and sadness. The word I use is compelling, and to me the most compelling site is Antietam. Gettysburg is a very powerful place for many people and it is viewed as the war’s turning point. Here at Fredericksburg we cover all aspects of the war, and while our site was just outside the city at the time of the battle, that city has grown. So, in terms of an atmosphere that supports learning and contemplation, Antietam has an incredible landscape that is so unchanged, vivid and interesting. It’s unaffected by modern development, so in my mind Antietam has the best combination of all those things that really makes it the most compelling.

Q: What are you going to be talking about at the dinner and conference next weekend?

A: I’m going to talk about secession, and how it took place in Virginia and what it involved and what it meant to the people of that community. On Saturday I’m going to discuss the first real major battle of the war, Manassas or Bull Run. I’m going to talk about the popular perceptions of the battle, the lies and the legends, and how they became part of the culture.

Q: Do you have a teacher or professor that inspired you?

A: It was an English teacher, Mrs. [Jocelyn] Jerry at Bethlehem, who really inspired me to write, and that was more important to me than any historical knowledge I learned. In the 11th grade she told me I had the ability to write. She told me I could be a good writer, and at that time I had never even thought about it. I started working at it, eventually found a voice, and I feel like my writing has been the basis behind everything I’ve been able to accomplish.

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