When William Howard Taft was in the White House and I was not yet a teenager, the citizens of Brightwood staged elaborate ceremonies every year on May 30 in tiny Battleground National Cemetery at 6625 Georgia Avenue. My grandfather, Lewis Cass White, always sat on the platform reserved for VIPs. As a corporal in the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, he had fought in the Battle of Fort Stevens, which took place 126 years ago come July in the fields and woods flanking the "Seventh Street Pike" (now Georgia Avenue) half a mile north of Brightwood.
The one-acre cemetery is the burial place of 41 Union soldiers killed in the fighting before Fort Stevens (now partially restored), one of a ring of forts and batteries constructed for the defense of Washington shortly after the start of the Civil War but virtually unmanned in 1864. Fort Stevens became the principal target of Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early during his attempt to capture the national capital on July 11 and 12 of that year.
To halt the Confederate advance, Union troops, including grandpa's regiment of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, had been rushed to Washington by steamboat from the battlefields around Richmond and Petersburg. Landing at the Seventh Street wharf, where President Lincoln anxiously awaited them, they marched out to the city's northern defenses, arriving just in time to engage Early's gray-clad infantry columns, turn them back and save the city.
As a youngster, I was greatly impressed by the Memorial Day observances at the little cemetery, which was located only a few blocks from my home right next to Grandpa's house at Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch Road, once the site of a toll-gate house on the Seventh Street Pike. A military band always was on hand for the ceremonies along with one or two pieces of horse-drawn artillery from Fort Myer across the Potomac. Parked in an open field next to the cemetery's north wall, the shiny guns and uniformed artillerymen were a prime attraction for children of all ages.
As I remember it, pupils from Brightwood School placed flowers and small American flags on the circle of white gravestones around a tall flagpole in the center of the cemetery. There were patriotic speeches. A resident of Brightwood named Lucius Randolph rendered a lachrymose Civil War song titled "Just Before the Battle, Mother," and the band played martial airs. The climax was the firing of a salute by the artillery.
Following the ceremonies, the surviving comrades of the Grand Army of the Republic, who had traded shots with the Confederates before Fort Stevens, converged on Grandpa's house for a light lunch. Then they sat on his spacious front porch and fought the battle all over again. The grandchildren from next door stood outside the railings, risking the prickers on Grandma White's rosebushes in order to hear history related by these graying heroes who once had made it.
John I. White
once wrote for the Washington Star and now lives in Maplewood, N.J.