The Civil War community lost a giant late last month. Harry Pfanz, former chief historian for Gettysburg National Military Park, passed away on January 27 after a long illness. He was 93. (Read his obituary in The Gettysburg Times.)
Few of us at ECW knew Harry personally. He had retired from the public eye well before we came on the scene. However, we know his work well. His trilogy on Gettysburg is THE definitive work. More importantly, we know him through his son Don, a wonderful friend and colleague to many of us.
“When I think about Gettysburg, the name of Harry Pfanz, more often than not, is one of the first things to come to mind,” says ECW’s Dan Davis.
“I have read his three books on the battle multiple times each. Over the years, his book on the Second Day continues to stand out to me as one of the best Civil War battle narratives available. Whenever I go out to the field, I always have at least one of his books with me. If and when I have the opportunity to write a micro-tactical battle history, his Second Day book will be my template.”
A number of us at ECW echoed Dan’s thoughts. “Harry Pfanz did much to enhance our understanding of the bloodiest battle in North America,” says Chris Kolakowski, “but he did it in a modest and gentlemanly way characteristic of the man. His books stand up there with Edwin Coddington in terms of standard works on Gettysburg, and will for a long time to come. The Civil War community has suffered a major loss.”
Among Harry’s professional duties, he worked at Gettysburg from 1956 until 1966, including a stint as chief historian. After, he served as the superintendent who opened “the Arch” in St. Louis’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. From 1974 through 1981, Harry served as the NPS’s chief historian.
But it was after his retirement that he made the contributions for which he is best known: his Gettysburg trilogy (Gettysburg: The First Day, Gettysburg: The Second Day, and Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill & Cemetery Hill).
Harry’s Culp’s Hill/Cemetery Hill book served as Kris White’s first introduction. “While at the time I knew his name in passing, being so young I did not fully appreciate all the work he, as a historian, had poured into the battle of Gettysburg,” admits Kris, who eventually went on to become a licensed battlefield guide. “For a young Civil War enthusiast fascinated with the battle of Gettysburg, I was captivated by his depth of knowledge and meticulous research. To me, his Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill book was a breath of fresh air, because the waves of books that followed the release of the movie Gettysburg so heavily focused on Little Round Top as the turning point of battle.
“With that said, Harry’s Gettysburg: The Second Day is all that a research book should be,” Kris adds. “While heady at times, he leaves no stone unturned and tells both sides of the story from Little Round Top, to the Wheatfield, and beyond. The way he introduced readers to each major character with blurbs about their lives and personalities truly helped me understand the battle from a human perspective, showing that me as a reader that these people were fallible, something we need to be reminded of from time to time. His Second Day book was the model for what Chris Mackowski and I did in Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front. In a small way, we paid homage to Harry by introducing our characters in the tradition he set forth, while trying to live up to a research bar he set so high. At the end of the day, Harry was an outstanding historian, who brought humility to his writing and profession.”
For Eric Wittenberg, who has written extensively on cavalry operations at Gettysburg, the works of Harry W. Pfanz on the battle “are the epitome of the sort of microtactical military history that most appeals to me.”
“My primary interests are strategy, decision-making, and tactics,” Eric explains, “and Pfanz’s three excellent books on the first and second days of the battle of Gettysburg focus on precisely those issues. They are a pleasure to read, and I’ve long hoped to emulate the quality of research, writing, and analysis demonstrated in those three fine volumes. It would be hard to overstate his impact on the field of Civil War scholarship, and for that reason, he will be sorely missed by those of us who appreciate the sort of outstanding work that he did.”
Chris Mackowski’s reaction was a bit more personal. “Of course I love his books—his Day One book, especially,” he says. “But Harry’s enduring impact on me is through the friendship I have with his son, Don. Don followed in his father’s footsteps and became a historian and author, and over the years, he has been instrumental in helping me learn research skills. He’s passed a lot of wisdom and know-how on to me, and he’s been a wonderful mentor and colleague. Like his dad, he’s a gentle gentleman—which says a whole lot about Harry.”
ECW’s best Harry Pfanz story, perhaps, comes from Dan Welch, who works for the Gettysburg Foundation. “My family had been visiting Gettysburg since before I had experienced my first day in kindergarten. Now, two weeks before I started my freshmen year as an education major in college we returned once more as a family for what would likely be our last family vacation,” he explains. “During our several day visit, I purchased several general Civil War titles and only one book on Gettysburg, one that offered glimpses into particular civilians of the town during their ordeal. Upon returning home to Ohio, and after voraciously reading through everything I had purchased, including John Pullen’s classic work on the 20th Maine, I went to our local bookstore to find something else more specific to the battle. There I found a paperback copy of Harry Pfanz’s Cemetery & Culp’s Hill. Since I had spent all my money on our family trip and all of the books I needed for my first semester at college, I had to find some cash to purchase the book before I could delve into it. After taking a small $25.00 dollar loan out from my girlfriend of time—who simply did not understand my need for this book—I went back and purchased it.
“The rest, as they say, is history. I fell in love with the way it was written, a combination of minute battle action and gripping narrative containing numerous firsthand accounts. I read the work twice in back-to-back readers. From there, I devoted much of my money to further Gettysburg titles—including Harry’s other two works—and much of my time visiting the battlefield. Harry Pfanz’s works had solidified a passion within me, and while attaining a degree in education, I now pursued the study of history, the American Civil War, and the battle of Gettysburg. His works transformed my future professional trajectory. I ended up attending Gettysburg College, interning at Gettysburg National Military Park, becoming a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg, and now working with the Gettysburg Foundation. His works so impacted me that I made sure I had two copies of each—one a battlefield copy, the other a hardback first edition. I was always on the lookout for when he might come to visit the park so I could get them signed and tell him my story of how his written words had changed my life—but I missed him on numerous occasions. Not being able to share that impact will be a lasting regret.
“I would not be where I am now, both professionally and in my ability to understand this battle, if it had not been for a lone copy of Cemetery & Culp’s Hill on the bookshelf of my local bookstore. Thank you, Harry.”