If I am writing about a deceased historical figure, I go visit. Cemeteries appeal to me because they don’t change much from generation to generation, so in many cases I see in the 21st century what visitors looked upon in the same spot in the 19th century. With imagination, I can feel a little more connected to the people I am writing about if I try to look at the place through their eyes. More important, grave markers often reveal something of the person beneath the stone or of the family that marked the grave for posterity. Since I am hungry for every scrap of understanding I can find, I think going to the grave can help. Consider my visit to the community burying ground in Warrenton, Virginia.
I went in search of the grave of Gen. William H.F. Payne, who commanded a brigade of Confederate cavalry at Tom’s Brook. I did not know much about Payne before my visit, so 20 minutes in that cemetery proved fruitful. The first thing I noticed was there were Paynes buried all over the place. I knew that the family had been prominent in northern Virginia, but seeing all those headstones gave me new insight into the power and influence of the prolific Paynes.
General Payne’s grave lies in the Confederate section, and the specific location told me a few things as well. He had the wealth and social stature to acquire a prime burial plot on the top of a hill near the heart of the cemetery, immediately behind the towering, brilliant white monument to the Confederate dead. There is symbolism in that he is as close to that big monument as it is possible to get, and the monument almost literally stands on his grave. The location suggested to me that Payne was a True and Devoted Confederate, and two bronze tablets on his impressive rough-hewn grave marker confirmed that he was a patriot above all else.
The tablet on the front provides Payne’s resume, and a similar tablet on the back proclaims what Payne valued. The words read as though they come from a eulogy or an obituary. I quoted these words in Decision at Tom’s Brook to help explain what motivated the man. The more I investigated Payne, the more important he became to my telling of the story. He, like General Rosser, was a warrior who thirsted for battle. Together with artilleryman James Breathed, they represented the type of man who kept the Confederacy alive in those final months of the war. Never give up; never give in; never apologize.
Most of the historians I know count cemetery visits among their research trips. Gravestones can, as in the case of W.H.F. Payne, serve as valuable interpretation tools. So I urge all writers to “go visit” the dead. In future posts in this “Discoveries Among the Dead” series, I’ll write about L.L. Lomax’s grave, which is also in the Warrenton cemetery, and the Rosser family plot in Charlottesville.