(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.