History buff won’t let stories fade away in neglect
BLACKSBURG — April Danner has a thing for men in uniform.
Particularly, if those uniforms consist of Confederate greys or Union blues.
Since 2004, Danner has been on a mission to locate, clean up and maintain local, privately owned and often-forgotten cemeteries, many of which contain the final resting places of Montgomery County’s historic soldiers.
While her efforts have assisted in supplementing the area’s history records, for Danner, it’s largely about connecting with troops from the past.
“Seeing those people’s names and knowing they’re soldiers and then finding out who they were, that’s what’s so exciting,” Danner said. “Going through the research, and after that it’s like, I know that man.”
Danner began her quest while finishing her master’s degree in history under professor and Civil War historian James Robertson at Virginia Tech.
Robertson sought Danner’s help in his effort to locate every Civil War soldier’s tomb in Montgomery County, which had the highest per capita population of men in the war, Danner said.
The notion sparked a childhood memory of finding a small cemetery near where the 41-year-old grew up in the Crab Creek area of Christiansburg.
Curiosity took over, and Danner decided to hike back to the area to see what she might learn.
“You couldn’t even see it, it was so weedy,” she said.
What Danner learned was that Capt. Milton Hall Harmon of the Confederate Army had been laid to rest in the small private burial ground. Danner went on to discover Harmon had been killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His brother, who was also in the Confederate Army, was also buried there, and the Harmon family had no idea the cemetery even existed.
“I just thought, this was such a shame that this graveyard looked like this. … There were two Confederate soldiers in there completely forgotten,” Danner said.
The Harmon cemetery’s fate was far from an isolated incident. Danner estimated there are close to 400 similar family cemeteries throughout the county, many of which she since found in a similar state — overgrown with weeds and forgotten about.
Danner said the large number of unattended graveyards was the result of the county historically being home to transient populations, which eventually moved west.
When families moved away, they left their dead, and the new families who moved in rarely tended to the sites.
Since finding Harmon’s grave, Danner said she’s cleaned up close to 40 similar cemeteries, 20 of which she continues to maintain in her free time between working full time as an operations manager at Tech’s Dietrick Dining Hall and part time as the head interpreter and education outreach coordinator at Smithfield Plantation.
While removing the vegetation and resetting headstones can be tough work, sometimes just as difficult is locating the venues, which Danner said the majority of people unknowingly pass right by.
There are signs, however, beginning with the lay of the land.
According to Danner, families who placed cemeteries in fields would most often do so in higher spots, such as hills, and surround them with trees, usually in a rectangular fashion, which can still be seen today.
Cemeteries set up in wooded areas can be more challenging, but Danner said the most common giveaway is finding a patch of evergreens, such as Periwinkle or Yucca plants, which were commonly used to mark grave sites.
While locating the forgotten has become somewhat commonplace for Danner, her skills of detection remain impressive to her former professor.
“She’s just absolutely incredible about finding cemeteries,” Robertson said.
Uncovering the actual sites is just the beginning, however, as the graves provide much of the key information needed to produce accurate history and correct mistakes made in past documents, Robertson said.
“Those tombstones give us the most reliable information about an individual. … The tombstone is the final judge,” Robertson said.
That historical accuracy can also affect people’s current ambitions.
Retired Tech professor and Daughters of the American Revolution member Judith Jones said grave markers are the key to proving an individual’s ancestry, which is a necessity for groups such as hers to function.
Jones, who also works alongside Danner at Smithfield, said Danner played a critical role in upgrading the Smithfield’s Preston Cemetery by organizing for War of 1812 veteran and former Virginia Gov. James Patton Preston to have a headstone placed at his grave for the first time, as well as obtaining markers for two graves of unknown slaves.
“Without the work she’s doing, a lot of future people wouldn’t know who these people are or what they’ve done,” Jones said.
In recent years, that work has earned Danner honors across the state and nation, including the Historic Preservation Medal from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Spirit of 1812 award from the Daughters of the War of 1812, as well as the Jefferson Davis Historical Gold Medal and Winnie Davis Medal from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In 2011, Danner, who is also the chairwoman for the county’s Sesquicentennial Committee, helped bring attention to Blacksburg’s Westview Cemetery by working with the Virginia Tourism Corporation to gain a grant to install a Civil War Trails marker in the cemetery. The marker links the cemetery with other important Civil War sites throughout Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee, Danner said.
Although honored to receive such recognition, Danner’s purpose remains to reflect that honor onto the men and women she’s discovered throughout her quest by continuing to work to upkeep their final resting places.
“That’s all we really have left of them, … and if we’re not taking care of at least that, so that the next generation will know what these people did for us, we’re doing them a huge dishonor,” Danner said.
Having a person with such a passion for preserving an area’s local history is something Robertson said other areas of the state should be jealous of.
“I wish every county had an April Danner,” Robertson said.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1643