Danville, Virginia: Hallowed Ground

The town’s Civil War cemeteries deepened Ernest Furguson’s view of history as a young boy

The "cemeteries were park and playground," recalls Ernest B. Furgurson, in the National Cemetery. (Tyrone Turner)
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“I believe it was the purest and sweetest life ever lived,” the textbook quoted him as saying. “It gave the most to make this great nation....This same social life brought Christ to the Negroes in less than two hundred years and a civilization which they had not known since the dawn of history. It made men noble, gentle, and brave and women tender and true.”

Yes, we were brainwashed, but I don’t think any of us were persuaded that slavery had been a paradise. We could see its legacy in the lives of the black people around us—see it, if not, at that age, fully comprehend it. What sank into me was not so much what I was taught in history class as what I unconsciously absorbed from the ground I walked on, from the long rows of mute stone testimony to the deaths of so many, and from the sad voices of old ladies whose fathers had been in the War. It was there before I went out into the world, and eventually it compelled me to write about that war—not just the generals and battles, but the hospitals and cemeteries, the widows and lonesome children. When I go back to Danville and Lee Street, in person or in my mind, I understand myself better, with all my guilts and complexes. That quarter-mile square of my barefoot days, its tangible reminders of soldiers and slaves, rights and wrongs, playmates and ancestors, life and especially death, has somehow affected everything I’ve thought and written.

Things have changed, of course. What were broad aisles between the original graves in the National Cemetery are now filled with veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. A grand magnolia tree that wasn’t there when I was young has grown up and displaced the headstones of three soldiers from Ohio, Indiana and Wiscon­sin—Yankees now as deeply rooted in Virginia as I am. The white pickets around Green Hill have become a chain-link fence; scattered gravestones there have been overturned by vandals. The Daniel house at 738 Lee, where my maternal great-grandmother sat on the porch waiting to join her soldier husband across the street, has been torn down. I have found the plot where the two of them are buried, and marked it with a government tombstone like those that identify the Union soldiers a few hundred yards away. Danville has had three black mayors; the barbed wire between Green Hill and Freedman’s cemeteries is gone; and the grass is mowed on both sides. Lee Street Baptist Church is now Mount Sinai Glorious. Liberty Hill has city water, paved streets and middle-class housing.

Changed indeed. I doubt that the town’s younger generations could understand what it was like for us so long ago, the feeling that we somehow shared the glories and the lost causes of those on both sides of that stone wall. Too much more history has happened since. Yet even from this distance, I still hear the echo of taps.

Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson’s most recent Civil War book is Freedom Rising.

About Ernest B. Furgurson
Ernest B. Furgurson

Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War and Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, plus other books about war and politics.

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