Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Author Q & A: John J. Hennessy on "The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 Revised Edition"

Way back in 1989, H.E. Howard published John Hennessy's The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861, a slim Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series volume that came to be regarded by most as the finest tactical treatment of the battle. Last month, Stackpole announced the release of  The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 Revised Edition and John has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about it.

DW: A number of the better H.E. Howard studies have been revised and reissued recently. Was that a source of inspiration or is this something you’ve been wanting to revisit for some time?

JH: Though the H.E. Howard volumes tended to get lost among their uniform look, Howard’s Battles and Leaders series produced some fine books. I think Ted Mahr’s volume on Cedar Creek is the best that has ever been done on that battle (and it too is being re-issued), and all sorts of actions in VA received their one and only treatment as part of that series. Now that H.E. Howard has ceased operations, I am not surprised that several of the books are finding life at the hands of other publishers.

Over the years since I wrote An End to Innocence, as I came across new material on First Manassas, I tossed it into a folder with, I guess, the vague idea that I would do something with it someday. I didn’t closely track what I acquired—wasn’t sure entirely how it all might sustain or demolish what I had done in the original. When Stackpole Books came calling last winter, interested in reissuing the book, I knew it was time to find out.

I confess I went into the Stackpole project thinking a week or two of work would polish and update the book sufficiently for a re-issue, but I was wrong about that. Of course over the years I had gone back to the book to check things or prepare for a tour or article—I consumed chunks of it as a reader, and it seemed fine. When I returned to it this time, I looked at it as a writer, and suddenly I realized the writing I did 25 years ago didn’t really rise much above average. Soon I found myself rewriting huge swaths of the book. I would guess that about 70-80% is reworked. Along the way I revisited virtually every source I used in the original and wove in dozens more.

DW: You’ve said that the Stackpole edition is more rewrite than revision. Realizing that new material is likely incorporated throughout the manuscript, can you point to any areas where the new information is especially concentrated?

JH: Generally, most of the new source material that came to hand in the last 25 years confirmed the conclusions I came to when I wrote the original volume. (I suspect most historians carry an untoward secret: once you write a book about something, you secretly hope that new source material does NOT emerge that rendered your conclusions obsolete.) While new source material did not lead to any fundamental reinterpretations of the battle, it did allow for a more complete understanding of certain things (and some significantly improved passages of prose). The battle hinged on a midday lull between the fighting on Matthews Hill in the morning and that on Henry Hill in the afternoon. New source material renders that period far less placid than long presumed. Too, the roles of units like the Hampton Legion, the 2d Mississippi and 27th New York come into sharper relief.

One may rightly ask, what difference does that make? Good question. I am often struck by our penchant for accumulating detail about battles, often to a point that crosses the eyes of general readers. My answer to this question goes back to my major motivation for writing the book in the first place: to accord significance to the ground. The human experience of battle has a universal relevance. Even if you’re not interested in tactics or the ebb and flow of a particular engagement, understanding on a human level what happened on a given spot at a given moment in time has a power all its own. I most definitely wrote this book with the battlefield—and not just the battle—in mind.

Beyond a fairly rigorous reconsideration of McDowell (more on that below), the book includes brand new chapters that look at the experience of civilians and civilian spectators, as well as the aftermath of battle and how the battle reverberated across the North and South.

DW: Between 1989 and today, how has your understanding of the battle changed or evolved? Since that might be a brief question requiring a very long answer, perhaps you might just select a few examples that come to mind.

JH: One of the hard realities of life as a historian: eventually, you come to realize that almost every piece of conventional wisdom or simple truism associated with the great events or figures of our history is often incomplete, overblown, or flat-out incorrect. Manassas is replete with cherished simplicities.

Among the greatest of those is Irvin McDowell. I came to know McDowell well in my work on Second Manassas—by 1862 he had become probably the most unpopular man in America. Historians had done little but perpetuate his checkered reputation, and he has come to us as a bundle of simple facts, quotes, and supposed truisms. In the revision, he’s no rehabilitated hero, but I certainly spent a good deal of time working past the typical caricatures of him to understand better this unremarkable man caught amidst remarkable circumstances. He faced a question common to most wars (certainly we know the conundrum well in our lifetimes): what, exactly, would constitute victory? I believe that question dominated July 21, 1861, and I spend a fair amount of time exploring the question. Probably more than anything else, an improved understanding of McDowell reshapes the book.

Maybe the greatest of all simplicities related to Manassas revolves around the civilian spectators—that not only did they witness Union disaster, but they helped cause it. We see it in novels and movies and even some proclaimed books of history. As always, the reality is more complex than that—and indeed, I would argue that while the spectators certainly symbolized a nation’s attitudes and expectations, they had no impact on the battle itself whatsoever. Still, it’s a fascinating part of the story, and one that I tell much more fulsomely here than before.

Maybe the most ironic evolution of thought and research is reflected in the title: An End to Innocence. If ever there is a clich├ęd notion about Manassas, it’s that. In 1989, when I wrote the book, it seemed like an easy and obvious choice for a title—one that captured the essential simplicity of why the battle mattered. Today, I am far less convinced that the title is valid. Over the years, I have accumulated a great deal of material, and others have written fairly extensively about the expectations that shaped the campaign. I have come to believe that far more Americans saw the situation far more clearly than we have given them credit for; many envisioned a hard, even long war, with a good deal of bloodshed. Most did not foresee the immense human catastrophe that followed, but far fewer than I once thought saw the clash between McDowell and Beauregard and Johnston as an existential collision that would determine the future of the Union and the Confederacy.

Certainly the title applies still to the experience of soldiers on the field, but less so in the nation in a broader sense. But, having titled the book “An End to Innocence” back then, now, on its re-writing and re-release, there was no changing the title of it. So, it goes forth, in my mind valid still, but in a narrower way.

DW: Edward Longacre recently published a thick volume detailing the FBR campaign and battle. Can you point out places where your interpretations of events significantly differ from Longacre’s?

JH: Ed Longacre’s is a very nice book—I even said so on his dust jacket! In fact, his, David Detzer’s, and Ethan Rafuse’s all do a great job on the campaign. The difference in mine is its focus. In the original and in the rewrite, I focused pretty closely on the battle itself. That makes for a more compact book.

While I read all the new studies as they came out (and in Ed Longacre’s case, before publication), I purposely chose not to engage their scholarship in my revision. Someone could write an entire book just analyzing and reconciling (or not) the various perspectives of modern authors. I wanted to stay focused on the source material—old and new—and follow it wherever it led me. And I felt I needed to stay true to the spirit and intent of the original work. The difference in Longacre is in his scope—he takes a much broader view than I do, analyzing fairly deeply Patterson’s campaign, for example. I think that’s all for the good. Ed’s book also does a tremendous job of characterizing the players, painting some rich (and accurate) portraits.

As for major differences: I have a different approach on McDowell than the others, and on Jackson...

DW: Every FBR author has an opinion about the Bee-Jackson “Stonewall” origin story and its intended meaning. How would you summarize your own thoughts on the matter?

JH: In 1990 or so I wrote a piece for Civil War magazine (no longer in business) that looked closely at the primary sources written by men who were most likely to have heard what Bee said that day—mainly from the 4th Alabama. I am pretty sure no one has ever read that article, since I don’t think anyone who has written about the battle since has corrected the incorrect conventional wisdom on Jackson’s naming. Your readers can find an online version of the article at:

Bottom line: Bee almost certainly did not say “There stands Jackson like a stone wall, rally behind the Virginians.” That’s the version recorded by Virginians who were never anywhere near Bee when he uttered his words. Instead, his words were a bit more prosaic (read the book!), though not intended to be any less complimentary. Bee uttered his words a good deal later in the battle than the Virginians would have had you believe (long after Bee’s men had rallied), rendering the circumstances quite different from that embodied in the traditional telling (which is reflected by the inscription on the statue on Henry Hill). Bee fell mortally wounded just a few minutes after his utterance.

The popular idea that Bee disparaged Jackson with his words—“There stands Jackson like a [damn] stone wall”—is simply untrue. The circumstances don’t remotely support it. I suppose, though, that the idea will live on among those who wish to believe it, or rather those who just wish to be contrary without looking hard at the evidence. I have considered and reconsidered the evidence on Jackson’s naming twice, and I don’t think there’s much doubt about the circumstances that begot the legend—if you look to the sources written by the men who were likely witness to the event.

DW: Do you have a favorite figure from the battle (on either side) whose role you feel has been greatly underappreciated or unfairly distorted by history?

JH: If I could have ridden to the field with someone, I think it would have been Union Col. Israel Richardson’s wife Fannie, who accompanied her husband into the field and brought her beehive along. The Richardsons were newlyweds, and the Colonel rather grandly diverted government resources and energy for his new bride’s comfort. I would have loved to have quizzed her on her motivation and perceptions—and just watched, especially after the Colonel, during the retreat, left her precious horse and saddle behind. He proposed stopping the retreat to parlay with the Confederates over the issue—a bold move reflective either of fear or devotion toward his wife.

Beyond the curious like Mrs. Richardson, both sides produced figures admirable and disappointing. For the Confederates, no subordinate commander had a greater impact on the battle than Nathan Evans, who, facing incredibly difficult circumstances, acted boldly and appropriately—ultimately buying for the Confederates precious time that ultimately allowed them to craft a victory when one seemed impossible.

Wade Hampton—a man of military lineage but no experience—wielded his Hampton Legion effectively at a critical point in the battle, helping to buy time at a key moment. I’d offer that no regiment on the field fought longer or harder or with more success. Jackson’s patience shaped the battle as much or more than did his aggression. We can today see that his decision to assume a position on the rear slope of Henry Hill and then wait for the Yankees to come to him bore immense results.

I also think the combination of Johnston and Beauregard worked extremely well that day. Later they degenerated into feuding, of course, but they both performed effectively on July 21, 1861, working out problems of command as they went. Johnston, especially, deserves credit for an uncommon exhibition of humility.

While the Union army included names now familiar to us, you’re hard-pressed to name one who by his efforts stood out. Burnside momentarily panicked during the early fighting on Matthews Hill. Sherman showed great initiative in getting his men across Bull Run, but later in the day simply threw his four regiments into battle one at a time, with little impact. Indeed, no officer on either side demonstrated a greater gap between the reality of his performance that day and his ultimate performance later in the war than Sherman. O.O. Howard largely lost control of his brigade, precipitating the Union retreat—the first of three disastrous retreats Howard would be central to during the war. And McDowell: he engineered a morning success that he confused for ultimate victory, and then followed with uncertain steps that led to disaster. The battle offered little opportunity for Union stars to shine. Men like Griffin, Ricketts, Ayres, Hunt, Slocum, Franklin, Sherman, and Willcox would rise to lofty levels in this war, but not by virtue of what they did at Manassas.

DW: Authoritatively reconstructing the tactical progression of any Civil War battle is a difficult task by any measure, but the fighting on Henry Hill is often described as especially confusing. Is that accurate or do you think we can be more than reasonably confident in our knowledge and understanding of the sequence of events at this point?

JH: I long felt (and said so) that the flow of battle on Henry Hill would never really be understood, but I don’t believe that any longer. New source material really confirms our understanding of what happened on Henry Hill. The key lies in understanding the timing of a handful of well-known events—the charge of Stuart’s cavalry on the 11th New York and the capture of Griffin’s guns, for example. Once that sequence was confirmed, everything fell into place rather nicely. New sources make me even more confident of the events surrounding the capture of Griffin’s section by the Confederates—the turning point of the battle. The fight around Ricketts’s guns in the center of the hill now seems clearer, though still chaotic.

There will always be room for elaboration and clarification (it will follow in due course, I am sure). I think the fighting around the Henry House from the Confederate perspective needs some shaking out of details. The final Confederate sweep across the hill entails a few vagaries. While I understand the fighting on Matthews Hill on paper, relating it to the ground (most of it now heavily wooded) has always remained somewhat elusive. Having ready access to aerial photography has helped, but I would offer that of all the aspects of First or Second Manassas, the ground entailed in the morning fight for Henry Hill remains the most elusive for me.

DW: Are there any lingering questions about FBR that interest you yet the answers remain frustratingly elusive [ed.: we both like that word, I guess]?

JH: McDowell remains the big mystery. There is no biography of him, and no known large collection of papers that would allow us to understand him in the same way we do so many others. Instead, we are left with third-party observations (often simplistic and even unfair) that offer little insight into the workings of his mind. So far as the war in Virginia is concerned, I’d offer that McDowell is one of two major figures that we simply do not well understand (the other is Daniel Butterfield).

Details about the Confederate medical service are spare—the process the Confederates set up to move their wounded, the location of all their field hospitals, and the system used by Confederate surgeons all need illumination.

DW: Regarding the battle’s legacy, one school of thought argues that Confederate victory at Bull Run established a psychological edge for the South in the eastern theater while another rejects this view, suggesting instead that Union defeat was an ironically beneficial “shock to the system,” forcing northern society to immediately confront the enormity of the task at hand and steeling national resolve. Where do you come down on this issue?

JH: The victory at Manassas sped the transformation of white Southerners into Confederates. Most did not presume that victory at Manassas guaranteed the Confederacy, but they nearly all could now see the Confederacy as a viable entity, a real possibility. If Southern nationalism needed a confirming event, this was it. Much work remained, but the South would undertake that effort as a nation with an identity rather than as a section grasping at a possibility. In that sense, First Manassas was supremely important.

No one sensed the impact of the victory on the South more acutely than observers in the North. The North, too, now saw the Confederacy as an idea and entity to be reckoned with—thus the “shock to the system” you referenced. Editorials across the north, serious-but-hopeful in tone, described the hard work ahead. I don’t see this as the out-of-the-blue shock some claim (far more Northerners recognized the work ahead even before the battle), but no question the battle forced Northerners to reconsider their assumptions about war, effort, and the Southern Confederacy.

The other legacy of the battle derived from the painful reality of who witnessed it. Probably 50 or more members of Congress or significant government officials were among the 500 or so spectators who rode forth. While most saw little of the battle, they witnessed the retreat close up. I firmly believe that this contributed dramatically to the determination of Congress and commentators in DC to view the Union army in Virginia as suspect—setting the stage for nearly three years of antagonism between the Army of the Potomac and the government it served (an antagonism most vividly embodied in the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War). It’s one of the important themes of the war, and one distinctly Union in nature.

DW: Interesting points! Thank you very much, John, for generously taking the time to participate in this author Q&A. Readers, the title again is The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 Revised Edition by Stackpole Books. Both first timers and long time owners of the original edition will want to pick up a copy.

JH: Many thanks! If anyone has questions or would like a signed copy of the book, send me an email at


  1. Drew: An excellent interview on both sides. Although I have the first edition, it sounds as though there's enough "revision" to make this worth the purchase. As an aside, John's 2BR Map Study for Howard is also a terrific piece of work, but I'm skeptical that it would be up for republication, especially given the map "logistics".

    1. Thanks, John. I'm only a couple chapters in now.

      I've never seen Hennessy's 2BR map study but I purchased Bearss's FBR a number of years ago. It seems to be buyer beware on these things today. It's funny when I see listings for Bearss on the secondary market the sellers are typically silent re: the map roll that goes with it (the absence of which makes the entire thing incomplete). I seem to recall that you could buy the book separately when it was in print but why anyone would do that is beyond me.


    2. I have John's 2BR map study, purchased at The Strand in NYC, sans maps, and I find it very useful on its own as a collection of regimental-level details and primary sources.

    3. Yes, I am sure the books have intrinsic value. My main point is that competent booksellers should disclose the missing map set.

    4. Agree on the disclosure. I got the maps with the book and while the book certainly has its own value, it is a map study, after all.

  2. Thanks for the outstanding interview.

    I'm really glad this was brought back into print, and by a good company. It was one of my favorites from years ago, and deserves to be widely read by a new generation of students. Congratulations, John.


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