Where Valor Proudly Sleeps (part two)

Pfanz-cover.jpg(part two of two)

When Don Pfanz first began researching the history of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, he compiled it into a report from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. That’s where I first came across Don’s work, years ago. I found it fascinating. “This stuff is too good to just be sitting behind the counter at the visitor center!” I told him.

And thus began the long process that led to Where Valor Proudly Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, the second book in ECW’s “Engaging the Civil War” Series, published by Southern Illinois University Press. I recently sat down with Don to chat about it.

Chris Mackowski: What did it take for you to turn your report into a book? 

Don Pfanz: A lot of editing! There are certain things that you put into a report that are maybe not of the greatest interest to the average reader. Since it was written as an all-encompassing report on everything you could possibly know about the cemetery, there was a lot of fat that could be trimmed for the average reader, so the biggest thing for me was to go back and weed out some of the more pedestrian facts about the cemetery and take out some of the facts about things like electricity and utilities. The sewage actually had some interesting stories, but nothing you’d want to put into print. I took out a few of the less interesting stories and made sure the more important and interesting stories were still there.

CM: One of the things I think is really important about the story of Fredericksburg National Cemetery is that it’s indicative of the larger National Cemetery movement in some ways.

DP: I always tell people, if you know the history of one cemetery, you pretty much know the history of all cemeteries, because almost all of the Civil War National Cemeteries were done pretty much the same way, because they were all run by the same people. The superintendents would just rotate between the cemeteries. The War Department headed them all.

If, for instance, you see a certain type of sign in one cemetery, if you figure out when that sign was put in, you can pretty well bet that within a year, that same sign was put into the other cemeteries around the same time. The lodges, in most cases, all look very similar. And the same with maintenance buildings: if you compare pictures of them, they look almost the same. There are small differences, but all of them have the same general pattern.

CM: The book serves as a good sort of case study, then. What other sorts of things about the book would you want people to know?

DP: The most interesting part for most people are the personal stories. Most of the book deals with the cemetery itself, though, rather than the people who are there. I think it’s interesting just to know how these cemeteries evolved. They didn’t just pop into existence 150 years ago looking exactly as they do now. There have been changes over time and personalities that have affected those changes. There are reasons why the cemetery was put where it was and why it looks the way it does, so it’s interesting just knowing how the cemetery came to be what it is today.

Another interesting facet which I don’t think has been looked at very much at any cemetery is the evolution of Memorial Day programs, from the 1860s when Memorial Day first came into existence, up until the present day, and especially how the Northerners and Southerner were sometimes at odds with each other over Memorial Day programs and then came to be almost fraternal in their backing of programs at both Union and Confederate cemeteries. But they did that at the expense of excluding former slaves, who initially were the ones carrying the torch for Union Memorial Day programs. They were eventually kicked out in favor of the Confederate veterans. It’s kind of a very interesting story about how that developed and how the stories changed over time.

I also think it’s a reflection of America, because back in the 1890s and early 1900s, a lot more people attended the ceremonies than they do today. Fredericksburg was a much smaller place back then, and transportation was obviously much worse, and yet you had hundreds of people show up at those programs, and today when the city is many times bigger than what it was, and it’s easier to get to the cemetery, you have maybe 100 to 150 people show up to the average Memorial Day program. I think it says something about our patriotism and about how we feel towards the people that have given their lives, and how today, we are more interested in the barbecues and the pool parties than we are in the people who died. When you go to most of those programs, most of the people who are there are veterans. You don’t find many people there that haven’t served in the military. I find that it shows Americans take their freedoms for granted.

CM: I think about that line at the end of Flanders’ Field where he says, “If ye break faith with us who died, we shall not rest.” It’s very poignant that we, as survivors, have a responsibility to remember those who gave our lives.

D: I know. I notice whenever I go up there, I hear a lot of rolling underneath the ground.

Where Valor Proudly Sleeps (part one)

Don at Cemetery

Don Pfanz at Fredericksburg National Cemetery

(part one of two)

We’ve spent a lot of time and attention on Turning Points of the Civil War lately. Our first book in the Engaging the Civil War Series, published in cooperation with Southern Illinois University Press, tied into this year’s Symposium, so it’s been turning points, turning points, turning points.

But there’s a second book in the Engaging the Civil War Series, too, and it deserves a little love: Where Valor Proudly Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery by Donald C. Pfanz.

As SIUP describes it: This is one of the few books that investigate what happened to the remains of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Where Valor Proudly Sleeps explores a battle’s immediate and long-term aftermath by focusing on Fredericksburg National Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries created by the U.S. government after the Civil War. (Read more here.)

I recently sat down to talk with Don about his book. 

Chris Mackowski: First of all, I’m a huge fan of the book. How long has it been since you first started work on compiling that information?

Don Pfanz: Probably 20 years. That’s a rough guess. Sometimes it’s hard to say when projects start.

CM: What was your goal when you started collecting information?

DP: It was just to find out more about the cemetery. One thing I discovered after working at [Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park] for a short time is that our entire knowledge of the cemetery and its history was basically confined to a one-page information sheet—and some of the information on that was wrong!

Anyways, I had lived in the national cemetery when I first went to the park. I was a resident at the cemetery lodge. I took an interest in the cemetery and wanted to know more about it. Fortunately, at some point in time, got the chief of interpretation, John Hennessey, to give me permission to go up to the National Archives to see what I could find up there about the cemetery. I came back with a lot of good information and spent a lot of time typing it up for the park files and then decided that, really, it would be nice to put it together and organize it and make it into something useful.

It was one of those kinds of things where it snowballs—you learn one thing and then you want to learn more. Next thing I know, I was writing a report—it was never meant to be published—pretty much for my own sake but also for the park. Once that was finished, you and some other people thought it might be good to have it published, so that’s kind of how it gradually became a book.

CM: I discovered it while I was sitting at the desk at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, when I was volunteering for the park, and there are all these resources back there behind the desk for people to draw on. Your book was one of them, and it was just one of those things that was really cool to read when you’re sitting there during those quiet times that helped me learn a little more about the park. And I thought it was super readable and accessible. The way it was written in chunks made it easy to read between visitors! To me, the book seemed like a gold mine of stuff—a huge untold story of this amazing resource that people drive by every day but maybe didn’t pay much attention to.

Why do you think the cemetery has been overlooked for so long?

DP: I think for many years, the park had a military, battle-oriented interpretation. In more recent years, that’s sort of broadened to civilians, slaves, and other things. I think that may be part of it, because it wasn’t a battle. But I don’t know for sure. It’s sort of weird that the historians over there haven’t had much interest in it over the years.

CM: I think the book shows that the cemetery itself has a fascinating story, but you can also pick almost any grave with a name on it and saw: “Oh, here’s this story.” There are some incredible stories of some of the people up there.

DP: Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the people up there, maybe 15 or 16 percent, are known. Of those who are known and correctly identified—which is a whole other problem—there are some fantastic stories. It’s just a matter of finding the stories. That’s the tough part because if they didn’t leave any letters that we know of or weren’t a part of a regimental history, we just don’t know what their stories are. That’s where descendants come in very handy. Sometimes someone will come into the park and have letters from or information about an ancestor of theirs that was buried in the cemetery.

It really is amazing when you start to look at people who have some information and see just how fascinating their stories are. I’ve always thought of that about everybody, whether present or past. Once you get to know them, everyone has a story, and it’s just a matter of knowing what that story is and packaging it in a way that makes it an interestingly told story. I think the cemetery is like that. I like it because there are 15,000 people buried up there. If you can tell those stories, suddenly it puts a human face on those 15,000 people, and that’s what really touches me.

CM: I think that’s one of the great successes of your book: it really helps connect people with a lot of those tombstones.

DP: There’s so much work left to do, though. It’s a field that will be open to researchers for decades to come because there are so many soldiers up there. Just recently, there was a soldier that we highlight up there named Jerome Pierce because he has an interesting little story. His widow, after the war, wrote to the superintendent of the cemetery and sent a check for $100 and asked for him to use it to decorate her deceased husband’s grave on a regular basis. The Birdsaw family not only did that every year on Memorial Day, but his descendants carried on that tradition to this very day.

We never really knew that much about Jerome Pierce other than that story, but thanks to a volunteer at the park, a guy named Joe Rokus, he tracked down one of the descendants of Mr. Pierce, and one of the park’s historians was recently allowed to copy hundreds of letters written by Jerome Pierce during the war, so now we know a lot more about him and can even quote him and his letters at the Luminaria program.

CM: You mentioned the Luminary, held each year on Memorial Day Weekend. That’s the one time of the year where thousands of people come to the cemetery and participate in a commemorative event. Tell me a little more about that and where that event came from.

DP: That event was inaugurated by the Boy Scouts in roughly 1996 or ’97. A troop leader came to us who had seen the Luminary at Antietam Battlefield, and he was very impressed with that and asked if we could do something similar here, although here it would be more difficult. At Antietam, they put the Luminary out on the battlefield itself to roughly mark where the people died. Here, that would be impractical, since the field at Fredericksburg is covered with houses, so instead the park suggested we do it in the National Cemetery, so that was adopted. Girl Scouts also became involved at that point. For the last 20 years, the park has worked with the Scouts of America, and now volunteers, too, to put up one luminary for each soldier that has been buried up there. It makes for a very popular and impressive program.

CM: As people go through and tour the cemetery and the program, the Park Service has been doing interpretations at different stops and sharing stories that help tell the larger story, and a lot of that work has come from research that you’ve done.

DP: Yes, a lot of it is based on my report, though they’ve added some other things, as well, since more volunteers have done their own research for that program and come up with some new things, which I witnessed at the last program—so it’s nice to see the research is still ongoing.


In part two of our two-part conversation with Don Pfanz about his book Where Valor Proudly Sleeps, we’ll talk about the book’s evolution from “report” to “book,” and what that holds for readers.

The ECW Symposium on Facebook LIVE

Facebook at 2018 SymposiumThe Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge has been roaring along with a sold-out crowd, but even if you’re at home, you can join in on some of the fun. We’re offering a slew of Facebook LIVE broadcasts on our Facebook page. You can join along here.

On our Facebook page, we have exclusive interviews with a number of our speakers, including our keynote speaker, legendary Park Service historian Scott Hartwig. There’s lots of great stuff to check out. AND, we want you to join in the conversation with your own comments and observations. 

We’ll be posting more interviews throughout the day, so keep watching.

C-SPAN was here last night, and they’ll be here again this afternoon. The episodes they record will appear beginning this fall. We’ll keep you posted as they let us know when the episodes get scheduled.

Where is Aunt Becky?

As I was reading some old issues of the National Tribune the other day, I came across the following notice from the July 26, 1883. My mother’s name is Becky, so of course my cousins all call her “Aunt Becky,” so the headline jumped out at me:

Aunt Becky

I am always impressed by reminders of peoples’ kindness.

Telling Stonewall Jackson’s Story Atop Henry House Hill

Chris Rob Manassas 157th

This is just a picture of the Facebook video, not the video itself.

I always think of July 21 as Stonewall Jackson’s birthday. Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, so that’s his actual birthday, but he got his famous nickname at the battle of First Manassas, which took place in this date in 1861. That’s when he became “Stonewall.” That’s where the legend was born.

I had the privilege to tromp around on the Manassas battlefield for part of the day with my ECW colleague Rob Orrison, who invited me to participate in a series of Facebook videos shot throughout the day in “real time” to commemorate the 157th anniversary of the battle. We were joined by historians Bill Backus and Paige Gibbon-Backus, both of whom have made some great contributions to ECW over the past couple of years. Rob, Bill, and Paige all work for Prince William County’s department of historic preservation, and they were all over the battlefield all day long shooting these videos. They brought in a cool line-up of special guests, and I was lucky to be among them. 

My job was to get Stonewall Jackson onto the field at Manassas, first by marching the 2600 men of the Stonewall Brigade passed what is now the Ben Lomond Historical Site (which Paige manages). Then, we picked up the story in a field behind Jackson’s line at Henry House Hill and carried it onto the hilltop itself, finally ending next to the statue of Ares, God of War, atop his Warhorse of the Apocalypse—er, I mean, the Stonewall Jackson statue.

If you’d like to check out the videos, you can watch them on the Prince William Historical Foundation’s Facebook page (even if you’re not on Facebook, you can still watch them). Rob, Bill, and Paige filmed a series of ten segments–great stuff!

I grabbed a couple photos during the course of the day as we roamed around the battlefield around Henry House Hill. It was a gloomy day, and it started raining on us the moment I firs got out of the car, but it was still an excellent day to be on the field, on the anniversary, telling one of my favorite stories of the war.

And if you think you know the story of how Jackson got his name, I really encourage you to watch the video. The story as it happened, versus the story as people think it happened, are a bit different, although it’s every bit as dramatic.

Happy birthday, Stonewall.

UDC @ Manassas 2018

The United Daughters of the Confederacy have an annual wreath-laying ceremony for the Jackson statue at Manassas, but they got rained on today.

Bill Backus @ 4th Alabama Field

Bill Backus prepares to video Rob and me in the field where Stonewall Jackson got his name. Note: No Stonewall statue in this field. Surprised? Perhaps you only *think* you know the story….

Ricketts Battery

Ricketts’ Battery took a point-blank volley from the 33rd Virginia–part of the Stonewall Brigade–because the Virginians were wearing blue uniforms, which made them look like Federals.

Stonewall @ Manassas in Distance

There stands Jackson, off in the distance, like a stone wall.