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.

Review of “The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865”

When Ulysses S. Grant looked back at the 1865 Mobile Campaign, he had an uncharitable view of the victory, writing that it was “eminently successful, but without any good result. Indeed much valuable property was destroyed and many lives lost at a time when we would have liked to spare them. The war was practically over before their victories were gained. They were so late in commencing operations, that they did not hold any troops away that otherwise would have been operating against the armies which were gradually forcing the Confederate armies to a surrender.”

Historians mostly agree with Grant’s view of the Mobile campaign. It was a backwater, compared to operations in Virginia and North Carolina. The Union moved too slowly, and while the operation did keep five brigades from being transferred to North Carolina, these men hardly numbered more than 4,000 troops even by generous estimates.

Paul Brueske, head coach of the University of South Alabama’s track & field program, takes the received wisdom to task in The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865. This is his first book, and it shows the strengths and weaknesses of a first-time author writing about a subject they feel a personal passion for. I had the same feeling when I crafted The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, so The Last Siege struck a nerve.

Early books often suffer from minor errors that, upon reflection, are cleaned up with experience. The Last Siege lacks first-rate maps and even an order of battle, which is must in any campaign or battle study. The operations against Spanish Fort are treated in detail but by comparison Fort Blakeley is not.

Fort Blakeley

Surprisingly, the book has more Confederate perspectives and voices than Union ones, which is often the opposite given primary sources. For anyone with a strong anti-Confederate interpretation, Brueske may seem a little too impressed by the ability of the Spanish Fort garrison to hold out. They will also take exception to his discussion of atrocities at Fort Blakeley and Ship Island, where USCT men were accused of murdering Confederate prisoners. Brueske’s treatment is fair. He does not hide that it happened but makes clear it was more incidental than widespread. Brueske is an unapologetic reconciliationist, easy with praise for soldier heroics and the lenient surrender terms offered to Richard Taylor by E. R. S. Canby. Such views are not currently fashionable among a vocal phalanx of scholars, but I am glad they have not been extinguished. Diversity of thought and opinion is a sign that a field is not about to atrophy into dogma, and therefore become sterile over time. As the saying goes, “every dogma has its day.”

As a student of the evolution of warfare in the age of horse & musket, I was annoyed with Brueske’s insistence that the stand at Spanish Fort was remarkable or the campaign was extremely “modern.” Smaller garrisons have held out against longer odds and the tactics used at Spanish Fort were close to the sieges of previous wars. In general, military historians of the American Civil War are only just now beginning to think of the conflict in terms of western warfare during the era, and I hope Brueske’s next book does not commit the same parochial sin of omission that has even plagued books by great scholars.

The Last Siege excels in the art of anecdote. It might grate some people, but I love stories of individuals, great and small, trying to survive in trying times. We know so little about the experiences of common soldiers before 1800, and the American Civil War was one of the first where the average private told their story, whether in letter, memoir, or article. Among the best tidbits are Fredrick Steele, who loved animals, losing his horse, which rode into the Rebel lines. Another is of the 1866 surrender of six Confederate diehards who lived in caves after the fighting stopped. He also recounts the complicated experience of the USCT, including the humiliation of being segregated by race when they had to share ship space with white Union soldiers.

Lastly, Brueske succeeds in refuting Grant’s verdict, which was written in hindsight by a sick man who was not friendly with Canby, nor his second in command, Gordon Granger. I think if one of his friends was in charge, he would have been more charitable towards a successful campaign. Grant wrote “I had tried for more than two years to have an expedition sent against Mobile when its possession by us would have been of great advantage. It finally cost lives to take it when its possession was of no importance, and when, if left alone, it would within a few days have fallen into our hands without any bloodshed whatever.” Both Brueske and I believe that Grant is only partially correct.

The fall of Mobile secured the Confederacy’s last bastion, kept veteran troops away from North Carolina, and was launched when the war’s end was still undetermined. As Brueske makes clear, the Confederates at Mobile were die-hards, and they fought as if the war was still worth their sacrifice. Although the refusal of Lee, Beauregard, and Johnston to wage a guerilla war was more important to ending the conflict, the seizure of Mobile, and the follow up march on Montgomery, were decisive in breaking Confederate morale in Alabama. The fall of Mobile sped up the end of the war.

The Last Siege is a flawed but solid work of history. Brueske has potential to be a good and consistent contributor to the history of the war, particularly as it relates to Alabama. I met him at a recent presentation he gave at Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans. He told me he plans to write a more extensive account of the fighting at Spanish Fort. In addition, he has also resurrected the Mobile Civil War round-table. I wish him best of luck in both endeavors.

The Last Siege

Exploring Fredericksburg’s History & Biography

CVBT Journalsby ECW Correspondent Katherine Duffek

Imagine the history of a city, neatly lined up on a bookshelf. Every year, more and more of that history gets published and added to the shelf. That’s what you would see if you walked into the office of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT). For fifteen years now, CVBT has been adding one volume of their Fredericksburg History and Biography journal per year to their bookshelf of history. With each volume, they’re giving readers more and more information about the battlefields around Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

“Having a written record that helps tell the stories of the lands we’re helping to protect is a way to make sure people understand why these lands are important,” said CVBT executive director Elizabeth Heffernan. “The journal has allowed us to preserve history in a different way,” she added, which is the preservation group’s ultimate goal.

The journal was originally started in 2002 as a CVBT membership benefit and, to date, 16 volumes have been published. “While our major emphasis has been the Civil War, the journal has really explored a lot of different areas of history,” says Heffernan. Not only do the different volumes of the journal tell stories of what the soldiers went through during the war, but they also tell stories of what the everyday civilians experienced in Fredericksburg.

The journal also includes articles from beyond the Civil War-era, too.

CVBT President Tom Van Winkle has been overseeing the journal for years now. “Basically, it’s stories and articles that you won’t find anywhere else,” he said. “We have a lot of primary information from people that lived here, and we know what exactly happened.”

This journal can teach anyone, even Civil War experts, something new about Fredericksburg at the time. They hold everything that a Civil War lover would want: primary resources, stories and photographs, diary entries from civilians, minutes from town meetings, detailed timelines, information about the economy at the time—it’s all there. Plus, it’s all written by local authors—people from the community and National Park Service—which adds a personalized touch.

The contents for each issue of the journal are posted online. By visiting CVBT’s webpage, and then clicking on the covers of each journal, its table of contents will appear. Individual volumes of the journal are available for only $6.00.

It is so fortunate that CVBT has given people access to this ever-expanding bookshelf of history.

Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part four)

Brian Swartz and 96th Penn Inf monument at Gettysburg

Brian Swartz, who writes the Maine at War blog, stands beside the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry monument at Gettysburg in early May 1863. Describing Gettysburg as his “Lourdes Shrine,” Swartz visits the battlefield every year. (Photo and shadow courtesy of Susan Swartz)

conclusion to a four-part series

In wrapping up yesterday’s segment, Brian Swartz, author of the Maine at War blog, mentioned Tom Huntington’s new book, Maine Roads to Gettysburg. “He has done Maine history quite a service in articulating the stories of those particular units,” Brian said. But of course, when people think of “Maine” and “Gettysburg,” there’s generally one figure who comes to mind.

Chris Mackowski: Since you mention Gettysburg, I have to pop the Chamberlain question. Do you have any thoughts about Chamberlain? 

Brian Swartz: He was heroic and a natural-born leader. I think he had the heart of a warrior. Obviously he was at least somewhat of a tactician, and an effective governor, but his ability to write—he was a prodigious writer after the war—is what let him overshadow the tales of other Mainers. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the left flank of the Union army at Little Roundtop, but there were other Maine units that suffered as bad, if not worse, and other Maine officers who were just as brave, some of them in somewhat more difficult situations.

I’m thinking of Colonel Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine, down on and around Devil’s Den. The 17th Maine was down on the wheat field. I was just there a little bit over a week ago, and if you walk it back and forth, you still can’t really get a sense of the violence of the combat there. There was the 19th Maine over on Cemetery Ridge, plugging the hole with their charge on July 2nd.

And then of course Charles Tilden and the 16th Maine’s sacrifice on Oak Ridge on the afternoon of July 1st. Tilden, to me, of all the Maine officers at Gettysburg, is the one that to this day is the most overlooked. Part of his problem was that he wasn’t a prodigious writer. He was a very enigmatic individual. It’s difficult to find information on him or letters he’s written and other material he’s cited in post-war. Maine at Gettysburg probably contains the most original Tilden-based material there is that I’ve found.

Chris: You mentioned you were just at Gettysburg and went out to Brandy Station. How often are you able to visit the battlefields?

Brian: I try to go to Gettysburg every year. It would be the equivalent of my Lourdes shrine, and to me is an annual pilgrimage.

Chris: Do you have other battlefields that you like particularly?

Brian: Antietam. I love Washington County, Maryland. If you’re heading westbound on I-40, there’s a spot where, just as it crests South Mountain, you can look to the west and see the valley before you with all the farm land with the different colors and such.

Antietam, to me, is a very haunted place, and it’s a very small, compact battlefield. During my research for volume one of my “Maine at War” book series, I spent a considerable time there tracing the movements of the 10th Maine and also the 7th Maine and their advance to the Piper Farm.

I like Brandy Station. Manassas. Shiloh is one that I particularly enjoy of all the battlefields east of the Mississippi. There are only a few minor battlefields that I still need to visit on this side of the river. Shiloh to me is a battlefield where, if you remove the monuments and are there on a fine April morning, it could be the opening moment, the opening volley. It’s so well preserved.

Chris: I feel that way about Spotsylvania. If you take away those few monuments, it feels like a step back in time.

Brian: I just had the pleasure three or four years ago to walk Laurel Hill. I’ve been out to the Mule Shoe over a half-dozen times over the years. This time we stayed in Fredericksburg for a few days, so I parked and followed the trail up to the top of Laurel Hill, which we would not even call a hill here in Maine—it was just a little rise actually.

Fredericksburg, the Slaughter Pen farm, I walk out there and follow the route of the 16th Maine. You’ve got what can be a really noisy airport right next door to you, but it really helps you appreciate what Tilden and all his boys and the other Union troops went through as they were charging out across that farm towards the Confederate-held hills.

Chris: Let me back up to something you said just a second ago just to shine a little light on your “Maine at War” book series. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Brian: Maine at War, volume one—the book is titled, From Bladensburg to Sharpsburg. It opens with the duel in which Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston was shot and killed. The reason I open with that is that his young son became Jonathan Prince of the 1st Maine Cavalry. He’s one of my favorite Maine characters out of all of them who served in the Civil War. After the opening chapter, which covers the duel and the aftermath of what that does to the Cilley family, the book covers Maine’s involvement in the war from early April 1861 to November 1862. I take different characters, and I weave their stories in.

It tells the story of particularly the army, because I had great difficulty in finding letters and reports and such of Navy personnel. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I am focused primarily on the Army soldiers and such and their families back home. I cover from basically the first regiments in Maine to the 16th Maine Infantry and their march from Antietam to Fredericksburg, and how they became known as the Blanket Brigade. That’s what ends the book.

That book is due out sometime this fall, I’d say maybe later in the fall. It’s being published by Maine Origins Publishing out of Brewer. Volume II is going to cover Fredericksburg, possibly through Gettysburg. There’s quite a bit of material for me to read through there. That is probably half-written.

I mentioned earlier, I just finished up the battle of Brandy Station. That took quite a bit of research, quite a bit of coordinating and, even though I knew quite a bit about the Civil War campaigns and such, I find that when I try to write up a particular battle chronologically, I have to do additional research to get everything in the correct order. It’s very easy to make a mistake.

Chris: Good luck with that. I look forward to picking up a copy, for sure. Before we wrap up, is there anything I’ve not asked you that I should have?

Brian: I guess I’d just like to say I really enjoyed telling the story of Mainers involved in the Civil War, and in using their stories, educating readers about specific moments or battles in the war.

Gettysburg: it wasn’t just Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. We have hundreds, if not thousands of acres out there on which Maine soldiers fought: in Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Appomattox Courthouse. I wrote a series on that, which was very eye-opening for me.

I just like telling the stories, and I always like hearing from readers if they like something, or disagree with it, or whatever, I really like hearing from the readers.


You can reach out to Brian directly at visionsofmaine@tds.net. And don’t forget to check out his blog, Maine at War.