(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.