- Where Valor Proudly Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866–1933by Donald C. Pfanz
This history of Fredericksburg National Cemetery appears in the new series Engaging the Civil War, which highlights public history and engagement with broader audiences. Donald C. Pfanz, a thirty-two-year veteran of the National Park Service (NPS), walks the ground where Civil War history happened, taking the reader on a journey into the history of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, with QR codes at the end of each chapter providing convenient reference points for additional images and resources.
Pfanz traces the history of Fredericksburg National Cemetery from 1866 through 1933, when control passed from the army to the NPS. He excels in detailing haphazard wartime burial arrangements and the subsequent postwar harvesting of the dead, mining the private papers of those involved, local newspapers, and the records of the Office of the Quartermaster General. The postwar burial parties often found it impossible to identify the unburied dead [End Page 710]and had to piece together the identities of the hurriedly buried (often in mass graves) from buttons, scraps of paper, and other ephemera. It was not atypical for body parts to be scattered or so jumbled together that the remains of up to ten men were entombed in the same coffin.
Pfanz reflects on the meaning of so many anonymous graves in an age when dog tags and DNA testing have rendered the concept of the unknown soldier almost obsolete. Fredericksburg, the fourth-largest Civil War national cemetery after those at Vicksburg, Nashville, and Arlington, holds by far the largest number of unidentified dead—12,770 of the 15,257 bodies resting there are unidentified. Just 16 percent of the remains gathered from within a thirty-mile radius of Fredericksburg—taking in the battlefields of Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Mine Run, and North Anna River—have been identified. Perhaps it is because so many of the dead are unknown that so few people attend the site's annual Memorial Day program.
Chapter 11, one of the strongest chapters, captures the personal stories of some of the few whose identities are known. In other chapters, readers are given a rich descriptive account of the cemetery's origins and development as well as exhaustive material descriptions of the refinements, monuments, buildings, headstones, trees, shrubs, flowers, and hedges. Pfanz's first NPS post was at Fredericksburg, and he lived on-site in the superintendent's lodge; his experience gives the descriptive chapters a sense of devotional attachment to hallowed ground.
The meticulousness of this work provides a record that will shape and inform the narratives provided to visitors to the cemetery for decades to come. Pfanz's overriding objective seems to be to encourage public engagement with Civil War cemeteries and to stimulate thought about "the grief produced by war's calamities" (p. 181). But he has achieved more than this: although he eschews a broader interpretive framework (citing none of the burgeoning secondary literature on the subjects of Civil War dying, burial, and commemoration, for example), Pfanz nonetheless provides scholars with the richest descriptive account of any of the Civil War national cemeteries.