Thoughts on Harry Pfanz

On the early afternoon of January 31st, the staff at Gettysburg National Military Park received a jolting bit of news:  one of our own, in a large and treasured sense, had passed.  And while the announcement of the death of Dr. Harold “Harry” Pfanz, while not wholly unexpected, certainly saddened many, it also gave us cause to once again recall the man for some whose very name meant “Gettysburg.”Pfanz

Personally, from my perspective, as an interpretive ranger fairly new to the battlefield at the time, Dr. Pfanz was a quiet, unassuming gentleman; though one already looked upon with quiet reverence given the recognition earned by his first work, Gettysburg: The Second Day.  I was privileged to meet the good Doctor in the early ‘90’s, during his research on his second work, Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill & Cemetery Hill.   At that moment, he was on his way up to the library in the old Cyclorama building.  A fine scholar of the old school, he invariably carried a number of long yellow legal pads and pencils with him during these research forays. At one point, he related how he had conducted the research for The Second Day, utilizing this long-hand method.  Unstated, but understood, was that in his day he had accomplished all that without the aid of copiers, and (obviously,) without computers.  Quite an achievement; yet he was not satisfied with just one.

Although Dr. Pfanz (“Harry,” to those of us who saw him,) continued, on an infrequent basis, to make research trips in the years that followed, he spoke to all most fluently through his  collective writing on the Battle of Gettysburg.  In 2001, the final work in “the Pfanz trilogy” appeared – Gettysburg: The First Day.   Following the completion of that third volume, his appearances within the park were rare, yet his name was (and is yet) often heard in discussions as staff discussed elements of his research in debate.

While his landmarks in the field of Gettysburg literature are well-known, his private personality shied him away from sharing many other worthwhile accomplishments.  A seriously wounded artillery officer during the Battle of the Bulge, Pfanz later earned his doctorate at Ohio State, prior to becoming a historian for the Army.  In 1956, at the outset of the “Mission 66” expansion, he accepted a position with the National Park Service at Gettysburg, initially choosing to refight the battle that would come to dominate the majority of his later life.

Assigned to St. Louis, Missouri, between 1966 and 1971, at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, he served as the site superintendent when the site’s iconic Arch was opened there in 1968.  He left St. Louis in 1971, travelling to Washington, D.C.  In 1974 Pfanz became the Chief Historian of the National Park Service, functioning in that role until his retirement in 1981.Pfanz

During the course of his work with the National Park Service, Dr. Pfanz received the Department of the Interior’s Meritorious Service Award, the Special Achievement Award, and its Distinguished Service Award.  Outside the “green and gray,” Harry was actively involved in the affairs of his church, of Phi Alpha Theta (the history honors fraternity) and other organizations.

Harry, however, did not boast any of that.  He was, as we recall, a studious and detailed researcher, quiet and efficient in his way.  Thankfully, his tremendous efforts resulted in landmark works that help us more fully understand the struggle that took place here.  They will remain, but their author has gone.  And I will miss him.

Ranger Bert Barnett

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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6 Responses to Thoughts on Harry Pfanz

  1. Alan D. Brunelle says:

    Well done – thanks for this fine post.

  2. Phil Spaugy says:

    Reblogged this on Buckeyes, Blackhats and the Boys of '61 and commented:
    I am not a big fan of re-blogging, but this article noting the passing of Harry Phanz deserves special notice.

  3. George Connell says:

    A very nice tribute to a great scholar. Thank you.

  4. Tom Danninger says:

    I have spent many hours on the Gettysburg battlefield reading Dr. Pfanz’s books. His command of topology and battle tactics was superb. I have never met him but from reading and re-reading his books I feel I know him… A sad loss.

  5. Al Mackey says:

    Reblogged this on Student of the American Civil War and commented:
    Here are some heartfelt remarks from Ranger Bert Barnett on the passing of historian Harry Pfanz. Well done.

  6. Pingback: Gallagher: Harry Pfanz, Historian & Friend | UNC Press Civil War 150

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