Republished from 2016
A Memorial Day tradition at Fredericksburg National Cemetery continues
BY JOSEF W. ROKUS/FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
In 1993, Montfort Academy fifth-grader Kent Ingalls was preparing for the annual placement of flags on graves at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Kent’s teacher told the class about a longtime cemetery mystery: flowers that appear every year at the gravestone of a Union soldier from Massachusetts.
Those flowers were no mystery to Kent, however. He told his classmates that after the Civil War, the soldier’s family had sent $100 to his great-great-great-grandfather, cemetery superintendent Andrew Birdsall, to place flowers at Jerome Peirce’s grave every Memorial Day, and his descendants had carried on the tradition for well over a century.
Continue reading the full article.
This Connecticut Yankee has grown to love my new home in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area. History hangs thick in the air and my local paper revels in retelling it. After a long drive home from Saratoga, New York, it was a joy to read this article in my morning paper. But this article went beyond retelling a story that continues to this day. It offered a lesson in what it means to keep one’s word and faithfully discharge a duty. Major Birdsall not only learned this lesson well, but he passed it along to future generations of the Birdsall family. This is the stuff of a healthy and successful society. I fear it is a lesson only rarely taught today.
There is another tradition involving the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. This Saturday night, the local Boys and Girl Scouts will light 15,300 candles in the cemetery – one for each soldier buried there. This luminaria will be accompanied by a bugler playing Taps every thirty minutes and park staff posted throughout the cemetery telling the stories of the soldiers buried there. It is a moving sight among my brethren lying in the hallowed ground above Marye’s Heights.
Last night’s luminaria commemoration at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery took place, but was cut short due to the storms passing through our area. We lost power, but only for four hours or so. I woke up this morning to the sound of chainsaws in the neighborhood. A similar luminaria commemoration is scheduled at the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery tonight. I wish them better weather.
Joe Rokus, the author of that 2016 article, designed a project to transcribe hundreds of letters held by the National Park Service. Coordinating the efforts of volunteers, the program successfully transcribed over 150 letters resulting in digitizing a part of history that can be accessed by future historians. In his honor, this is called the Sergeant Jerome Pierce Transcription Project. Once lost, now found, never forgotten.
Beautiful, and yes, too rare.
A wonderful post.
I hardly get the war part that a soldier gets, but the family tradition is no doubt a fascinating story.
It feels a bit that the Peirce’s somewhat by honoring their ancestor also honored the “approximately 84 percent of those buried there being ‘Unknown.'”
“the war part that a soldier gets” We love you too. How could we not? pl
IMO its difficult to maintain the solemn reverence for such sacrifice when we have a “volunteer” army.
A growing number of people don’t see them as ‘volunteers’ – but as job seekers and thrill seekers. We are reminded of their service mostly via ‘hire a Vet’ and ‘Give to Vets’ commercials whose very existence shows how little esteem is given to their service. We honor Vets once a year via a Holiday that has become an anachronism. Would Bush/Congress have dared cut taxes on the rich during war time if there was a draft?.
The Iraq War and GWOT have been public relations disasters. But most everyone shrugged and moved on. No repercussions for wasted lives and many failures. War-making continued undercover and outsourced.
Our “volunteer army” has made war a victimless crime. One in which the white-collar perps never face jail time.
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Trump’s phrase: “You either have borders or you don’t” might be re-phrased: you either have a nation or you don’t.
An oligarch-controlled government with a “CEO” President serving “consumers of governments services” instead of ‘citizens’ will use a “volunteer army” – whether national or proxy – as mercenaries.
Where’s the honor in that?
Great story. I love these traditions. My boys and I were up at Antietam the other day and there is a tradition there of place coins on the tombstones of the fallen. Some were missing or didnt have them, so we went back to the car and grabbed all of our change made made sure we fixed as many as we could.
Interesting note, the ranger for the cemetery said it had been closed for years but was opened in the early 2000s for a local boy. He was a sailor killed on the USS Cole attack in Yemen. I just happened into it, very interesting.
This book addresses this very directly by Col. and Prof. Andrew J. Bacevich:
Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (American Empire Project) Paperback – September 9, 2014
I come from a long line of professional soldiers so I resent your denigration of my people. pl
The “spit on the troops” generation wants people to think of soldiers that way. Where’s the honor in Obama in not changing that or in Biden for not holding his cocaine snorting son to the same standards as a private is held?
In anticipation of the spitting on the troops never happened meme, I was spat upon in uniform in 1968. pl
The attitude you describe is not what I find in this area. Living just south of Quantico MCB, there are plenty of active duty” jarheads” walking about. There are also a lot of veterans of all varieties in the area. There is an acknowledgement of brotherhood among all, along with some good natured rivalry. It’s not that “thank you for your service” stuff, although we get enough of that as well. It is a subtle, quiet attitude based on shared experience and respect. Even those with no military experience are respectful and perhaps a little jealous of what they don’t fully understand. This widespread attitude is one of things I like most about this area.
@ job seekers and thrill seekers,
In combat support roles I believe there are many young people who want the thing we once called ‘a bright future’, and if they can get there through chipping in for Uncle Sam, they are happy to. In combat arms, I believe it’s a drive to prove one’s self to the greater tribe/nation, service to tribe/nation and as the Jesuits say, be your best self.
My beef is with the civilian leadership, not the soldiers. Adventurism happens when private agendas are given free reign.
Civilians/citizens care less about foreign affairs when they believe that they will not be affected because they don’t know anyone in uniform or who might be placed in harms way.
Most of the debates about a volunteer military focused on the quality of the troops. As I recall, there was little discussion about the effect on the public. I think that much of our problems today stem from a disinterested and propagandized public.
That “lesson only rarely taught today” still survives. Here is a note left in the Bighorn Mountains on Wyoming in 2011. Wish I could post the photo too.
This cairn is a monument to the memory of Lieutenant William Kirkland Dorsett, USAAF, who was killed on duty on June 21, 1945 at the age of 20. Bill Dorsett was a native of Eastern Montana. He wanted to be a political cartoonist, and had a full scholarship to the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
On his last leave in 1944 Lieutenant Dorsett said that this was the most beautiful spot he had ever seen.
Following his death his parents, brothers and sister returned here and placed a message in his memory in a sheepherders cairn. In the years since then the family has returned here from time to time to rebuild the cairn, and leave messages. Sometimes earlier messages remained. My sister well remembers the excitement in 1963 of trying to extract the original note from its original container, an upside-down beer bottle with a (by that time) broken neck. Sometimes the cairn was dismantled and the messages gone; sometimes the cairn was intact. This ritual was repeated at least once in every decade since 1945, with the exception of the 2000s. There are many photographs taken here to prove it, showing the growth and aging of the family. The original notion was to reproduce some of them to leave here today. I did not get that together. Perhaps that was just as well – some of the photos are a little embarrassing.
Memory fades, as the sunlight fades on the side of Medicine Mountain. Of Bill Dorsett’s family only one sibling remains. The extended family is scattered to the corners of the continent, and none remain in Montana. It’s possible that this will be the last time we gather here.
The details will inevitably be forgotten, and don’t matter. What matters is to always venerate what is profoundly worthy in human life.
You were quite specific in condemning the troops as unworthy of your esteem. You are welcome for our service. pl
Col, Fredericksburg still gives me chills after many years. The slopes of Marye’s Hill where soldiers started pinning their names and addresses to the backs of their jackets so the death notices would get to their families. The long shallow skirmish lines of Wilderness. The Bloody Angle at Spotsy Courthouse.
Come down Rt 1 to my neck of the woods and the North Anna Battlefield. They are some of the best preserved and least known earthworks around. It is not far from there to Cold Harbor.
I am not condemning the troops. Nor do I see them as unworthy of esteem. I am commenting on public perception and willingness to be informed and hold the civilian leadership accountable.
I decry the low esteem for Vets when I say: “commercials whose very existence shows how little esteem is given to their service”. I feel that our treatment of Vets is disgraceful.
I point the finger at civilian leadership when I ask: ” Would Bush/Congress have dared cut taxes on the rich during war time if there was a draft?” and shake my head at the unaccountability of the leadership when I note: “No repercussions for wasted lives and many failures.”
I advocate for a draft army instead of volunteer army when I paraphrase Trump with: “either you have a nation or you don’t”.
And I conclude by diagnosing the problem as one of a combination of oligarch-controlled government and ‘volunteer’ army.
My father was spit on when he came back from Southeast Asia and it is something he never got over. Our family has a long history of professional soldiers as well, both men and women, and we respect those who serve no matter their motivation.
You were probably not suited to be a soldier. Do you really imagine that I do not know these battlefields and battles in detail? Try not to be so arrogant. pl
TTG, or anybody…
Something that surprised me in Europe was the comparative lack of this sort of worthy endeavor to preserve memory. The sites of battles, however large and important, are seldom made into places of veneration as they are here in the US. I do not know why this is, culturally we share the same roots. Perhaps because there are so many? I be guessing…
You may be right about Europe. There is hardly a piece of earth that was not a battlefield at one time or another in Europe. That lack of memory preservation is certainly not the case in Russia and most of the former USSR. The veneration of the dead and the veterans of the Great Patriotic War is unsurpassed. Granted this was pushed hard by the government for propaganda purposes during the heyday of the USSR, but the veneration was and is real. This is especially visible in the Immortal Regiment marches on Victory Day.
Arrogance or belittling your knowledge were not on my mind. Just remarking on a few of the reasons that the F’burg area has had a profound effect on me over the years. Hope you enjoy your time in the area.
I have spent a lot of time in the area of Fast Fred. The old town is quite pretty in the way that old towns all over Virginia are pretty. In Fredericksburg there a number of interesting things like the stone block on a street corner on which slaves were stood up for auction. The town is honest enough to keep it there. And then there is “Carl’s” soft ice cream stand/store on the outskirts of town. IMO this is the best soft serve on earth. People come from far and wide … I was there once when a couple of Hassidim in full regalia were eating ice cream alongside me while the sweet looking small town girls running the joint contemplated them from behind the glass. On of the Hassids said “We’re not from here.” A cute blonde, blue eyed thing on the staff said “Really?” Actually, the urban development devastation that has occurred west of town out toward the sacred ground of Chancellorsville so depresses me that I don’t go there any longer. A couple of Latino fellows (perhaps part Redskin?) from Fredericksburg were here yesterday doing a “depot level” cleaning of my outdoor gas grill. They did a great job. I asked them if they habituate “Carl’s.” They do. This restores my faith in makind. pl
We are in complete agreement about the superiority of Carl’s ice cream. My allergist’s office was only two blocks from Carls. When I was getting shots three time a week, we would always stop there for a large strawberry cone. Probably way too much ice cream for one’s health, but what the hell… FIDO.
” a longtime cemetery mystery: flowers that appear every year at the gravestone of a Union soldier from Massachusetts.”
That tradition is special….
In 1906 constitutional revolution in Iran, fighting that same disease of “Imperialism” a missionary from Nebraska who came to be know as the American Lafayette in Iran died along with many other revolutionaries. A mausoleum in his owner had been covered with yellow roses annually since his death by unknown family.
Col., here I was thinking only REMFs (& geeks like yours truly) love these sugared treats…
My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy
That quote was emblazoned in six inch high letters on the wall in the main lobby of my grammar school in Prospect, Connecticut. It’s meaning was also impressed on our young minds by our teachers. This is not surprising since our town, founded by Separatist Puritains, still valued this very Puritanical idea of community first.
TTG – When my wife and I owned a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, we were invited one memorial day to such a ceremony at Strasburg, Virginia. It was held in the HS football stadium. This little town and the surrounding countryside lost 120 men killed in the WBS. The whole town seemed to have assembled. The evening of memorial remembrance ended with the stadium in darkness while the crowd stood. One at a time high school girls walked onto the illuminated field each in a white gown and carrying camellias and wearing a sash that named one by one the states for which their people had fought. Maryland was included. We were honored to have been invited.
These ceremonies were a fairly big deal in Prospect, Connecticut when I was young. Surprising since we were so far from any of the fighting. Prospect sent 75 volunteers to the Civil War, over half the voting population at the time. Our town soldiers monument is a Union Civil War soldier in short jacket and trousers tucked into his socks. As young students we made shakos out of construction paper. Dressed in our finest clothes, we would march around the monument, wearing our shakos, holding our US flags and singing our patriotic songs. Most of our parents and town dignitaries watched.
None of my family were professional soldiers but served in every war from
the Revolution up to the Gulf war and I have great respect for our soldiers…makes me a little teary eyed and heart fluttery on Memorial Day thinking about the whole sweep of soldiers in our history.
One of our family’s most treasured items is a letter my great grandmother wrote to her two sons in 1812 instructing them to beware the hardening of the heart incidental to camp life and to do their duty for the country and uphold the honor of the family. Its now in the North Carolina Museum of History.
I always think of this when I see cemeteries with the flags planted :
”Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,
And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!
Turns his necessity to glorious gain;
But who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a Lover; and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired;
And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the law
In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw;
Or if an unexpected call succeed,
Come when it will, is equal to the need:
Conspicuous object in a Nation’s eye,
Or left unthought-of in obscurity,—
Who, with a toward or untoward lot,
Or if he must fall, to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead unprofitable name—
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:
This is the happy Warrior; this is he
That every man in arms should wish to be.”
I like Ben and Jerry’s DOUBLE-CHOCOLATE BYPASS.