Flags for the Soldiers Who Saved Washington

Ron Harvey Jr. plants flags at Battleground National Cemetery for soldiers who fought in the Battle of Fort Stevens.
Ron Harvey Jr. plants flags at Battleground National Cemetery for soldiers who fought in the Battle of Fort Stevens. (John Kelly - Twp)
By John Kelly
Monday, May 28, 2007

"We're not short, are we?" Ron Harvey Jr. shouts at Jessica Kusky, who cradles an armful of American flags mounted on wooden dowels.

The two park rangers are marking the graves of Union soldiers who fought at the Battle of Fort Stevens in 1864 and were buried at Battleground National Cemetery on Georgia Avenue NW. The ground is hard, but they lean into their work, easing the flags into the dry earth.

There are just 41 graves -- it's one of the country's smallest national cemeteries -- and soon the Stars and Stripes flutters at each one.

"We may not be as big as Arlington, but these men deserve just as much as the men there," says Ron.

Ron's been responsible for the cemetery since 1999. It's become an obsession.

"I have 41 friends here I've never seen face to face, I've never spoken to, but they're friends nonetheless," he says.

There's Thomas Richardson, who was killed serving his second stint in the Army. He'd mustered out before Gettysburg and gone to be a servant in Brooklyn. But the work didn't agree with him, so after seven months, he reenlisted.

There's George Gorton, a 19-year-old from Rhode Island. In the Civil War, soldiers started buying their own dog tags, and Gorton's, a tiny metal shield with his name engraved on it, was the only way his body could be identified.

There's John Kennedy, a soldier with the 122nd New York Infantry. "He couldn't read or write," says Ron. "He had to put an 'X' for his signature."

Says Ron: "I've spent 10 years learning about these guys." He hunts down clues on the Internet. He reads their military files in the National Archives. When a dealer was selling Gorton's dog tag on eBay, he had to have it.

Ron's 38 and lives in Falls Church. He's the sort of person who uses the word "asunder." His ancestors fought on both sides during the Civil War. They were a fractious bunch, and he jokes that they welcomed the war, because it gave them a chance to legally shoot at each other.

At the Battle of Fort Stevens -- July 11 and 12, 1864 -- Confederate Gen. Jubal Early's troops were breathing down the neck of Washington. When Abraham Lincoln went to watch the battle, rebel sharpshooters took aim, and he became the only sitting president to be fired upon in a battle. Among the Union soldiers defending the capital were the rawest of recruits, clerks and even some convalescents who'd been shipped away from the front. With the help of more seasoned troops, they turned back the attack.

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