A living tribute to Civil War soldiers

July 9

Cate Vasquez walks her golden retriever near the entrance to Oatlands Historic Home and Gardens in Leesburg, Va. In the field behind her, some trees were planted last year as part of the Living Legacy Project to honor Civil War soldiers. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The newest trees along U.S. Route 15 come with stories of Civil War troops.

One freshly planted rising sun redbud in Leesburg, Va., honors Joseph T. Bosworth, a young man from Massachusetts who fought with the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. He died at the Battle of Antietam.

A young sassafras nearby was dedicated to Daniel M. Barringer, who joined the Confederate Army in Corinth, Miss., fought with the 17th Mississippi Company and is buried in Union Cemetery in Leesburg. He was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg and died about a month after he was discharged.

They are among 1,413 trees that have been planted so far to commemorate the Civil War dead through the nonprofit Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG) Living Legacy Tree Planting Project. Though organizers acknowledge that the $74 million plan is ambitious, their aim is to plant a tree for each of an estimated 740,000 troops killed in the War between the States.

Cate Magennis Wyatt, founder and president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, said the trees — each funded by a $100 donation — are being planted along a 180-mile stretch from Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County estate, Monticello, to Gettysburg, Pa.

Visitors can search an interactive online map that shows each tree and includes details about the person it honors.


The U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps plays en route to the tree dedication ceremony June 29 in Leesburg, Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The tree-planting project came about after then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell asked communities to plan an unusual way to observe the sesquicentennial of the war, which was fought from 1861 to 1865, Magennis Wyatt said. She said her group, which is dedicated to historic preservation, wanted to do something other than a “flagpole or another monument,” eventually arriving at the idea for the tree allée.

“My joke was that God had spoken to her through a burning redwood bush,” said Peter Hart, an arborist and volunteer with JTHG.

When the project began, Magennis Wyatt noted, the number of Civil War dead was estimated at 620,000. Now historians put it at 740,000. Organizers said they are considering tagging existing trees to advance the goal of recognizing as many troops as possible. At a dedication ceremony last month, at Oatlands Historic Home and Gardens in Leesburg, Magennis Wyatt noted that there was not nearly enough room to plant a tree every 10 feet along the entire 180-mile route.

Many of the trees are redbuds, but the project is also using a variety of maples, eastern red cedars and flowering dogwoods. Hart, who took part in the selection process, said they picked colorful variations but also hearty trees that can flourish next to a well-traveled roadway, where they must withstand heat from the pavement, high winds and road salt.


In the back row, from left, Scott, Luke and Kim Davis listen to speakers at the tree dedication ceremony June 29 in Leesburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Christopher Shott of New Bedford, Mass., said he came across the project online and decided to donate a redbud to honor Bosworth.

Shott doesn’t have any direct family ties to the Civil War; his relatives came to the United States later. Still, he felt a kinship with Bosworth because they had lived in the same town, Swansea, Mass.

“He made me feel like I have a connection to the Civil War,” Shott said.


A marker is placed on one of the trees dedicated to the life of a Civil War soldier at the Living Legacy Tree dedication June 29 in Leesburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

One of the challenges the project faces, organizers said, is collecting information about the slain troops. Magennis Wyatt said about half of the soldiers died anonymously. She said there was no American Red Cross, government-issued dog tags or comprehensive registry. Wartime contributions of Native Americans, African Americans and women went largely unheralded.

The project has joined with Ancestry.com and Fold3.com to provide biographical sketches of the troops. It is uploading biographical information to the Web site and trying to verify information with descendants, historians and others.

At last month’s dedication ceremony, for 500 recently planted trees, Jimmy Cunningham, 14, presented his research on Barringer. Jimmy, who lives in Leesburg, has attended a JTHG summer camp for the past three years and will serve as a junior counselor this summer. He was asked to participate in the research project by the JTHG staff and teamed up with his grandmother to investigate Barringer’s life.


Cub Scouts Braden Scott, left, and Joshua Lierni, and troop leaders David Scott, center, and Clint Smith, right, stand at attention as the national anthem is played before the tree dedication ceremony June 29 in Leesburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Jimmy found that Barringer was injured in battle but died after he had been discharged. The death was attributed to “leprosy” and “disease of the head.” Jimmy also learned that Barringer’s father was a wealthy man, which raised questions about why he went to war.

“It stimulated a lot of conversation in our home,” said MaryKirk Cunningham, Jimmy’s mother.

Cunningham said her son’s research also helped him become interested in family history. An ancestor on her side, Briscoe Goodhart, was a member of the Loudoun Rangers, a partisan cavalry unit that fought for the Union in the Civil War.

“For us, it’s really great. . . . He went beyond our family but stayed connected to his nana through our family,” Cunningham said.

Michelle Kellogg, director of the JTHG National Heritage area, said the stretch where the trees are being planted, rich with historic sites, is a fitting place for such a tribute. She noted the region’s nine presidential homes and high concentration of Civil War battle sites.

“This region is essential in helping Americans and visitors understand our history,” Kellogg said.


Denise Winter and Carol Polkinghorne, both with the Dixie Rose Relief Society, attend the tree dedication ceremony June 29 in Leesburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

John P. Mann, 87, who served as a private in the Army during World War II talks during the tree planting dedication ceremony June 29 in Leesburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Hallowed Grounds partnership was created several years back by Magennis Wyatt, a former Virginia secretary of commerce, and others worried about development’s effect on the historic area. They were motivated, in part, by Disney’s attempt in the 1990s to create a historic theme park in the region and by proposals to build a casino in Gettysburg and condos near Monticello.

“It was apparent that we were taking a lot for granted,” Magennis Wyatt said, “not just the bricks and mortar but the people who lived on this land and created this country.”

Ellen Vogel, a landscape architect with the Virginia Department of Transportation, said another challenge of the project is finding enough space for the trees in the corridor, about half of which is in Virginia. She said VDOT worked to provide the necessary guidance and flexibility.

“It’s great that Virginia has a scenic byway. There are so few of those across the country,” Vogel said. “But we have a lot of history here. I think it’s fitting.”

Hart’s great-great-uncles Charles and William Davis and Jason Hart were killed in the war. His great-great-grandfather James Hart was wounded twice but survived.

“You combine my love for my family history and my love for trees and this living legacy project has captured me,” Hart said.

Shott, who flew to Virginia for the ceremony last month, said he visited Bosworth’s grave in Sharpsburg, Md., early that Sunday to pay his respects before going to see the rising sun redbud planted in the soldier’s honor.

“I just try to understand why they did what they did to the point they’d die for something they believed in,” Shott said. “The least we can do is remember them.”

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