Life for a Life: Trees to Honor Civil War Deaths

Living Legacy project

The goal: One tree for every Civil War soldier who died in action…

Leesburg, Virginia – The suburban stretch, one hour drive going south of the mason-Dixon Line, had a busy traffic as always but that day was different.

Workers were littered on the highway’s grass median, digging holes and painstakingly putting one delicate young tree – oak, cedar, dogwood and maple – in every hole. They’re tree planting before the setting in of the winter months.

Well, it might look like the usual highway beautification project, but, this one is part of the silent venture that seeks to answer this one big question: 150 years after the occurrence of the Civil War, can trees bring healing to this country’s soul?

Roughly 620,000 American soldiers died during the Confederate-Union Wars between 1861 and 1865 – the number greater compared to other wars American fought in.

And through all these 150 years after the war, almost no one – that includes majority of the historians – can pinpoint the exact number of deaths during that time or even the identities of half of those who died. Many of the soldiers, especially those who died fighting for the South, were not given proper burials.

And so, along the historic highway that goes from the equally historical home of Thomas Jefferson which is near Charlottesville, Virginia up to the national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a small band of individuals has started a silent act of honoring these dead Civil War soldiers – named and unnamed alike; plant one tree for every fallen soldier during that era.

They have been in it for the past two years and in completion, this $65-million project will stretch to over 180 miles from north to south passing through three states and will be recognized as the biggest man-made lane of trees found all over the globe.

The scale between the planted trees hits a very harsh truth about the Civil War – so many lives were lost throughout those four years of fighting that if workers were just to plant both sides of the route with trees, the space are merely three feet in between the plants.

To remedy this, since trees require more space than 3 feet to grow,  organizers have been asking communities to allot land spaces for creating tree groves. They have already successfully planted 248 trees within Gettysburg’s Bliss Orchard, the project part of the National Park Service’s project for the said area – reconstructing the battlefield site to how it was way back in 1863.

Cate Magennis Wyatt, head of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, the well-funded private-public effort which is responsible for turning the north-south pathway into a “scenic byway” has pointed out that the tree planting idea was an idea not hard to sell to the communities along the said highway.

When they were asked by state officials for ways to honor Civil War’s 150th year, their instructions were specifically…

“…we don’t want another flagpole. We don’t need another monument. What can we do together that’s bigger than what any one of us could do individually?”

The allée of trees was Wyatt’s idea; she had known the Australians had taken on the same project right after World War I. Along the implementation of the project, people along the route started approaching the group asking how to help.

“Tree people love this,” says peter Hart, Virginia arborist and one of the project’s champions.

He then recounted that in a recent arborists’ conference he attended recently, he put a table publicizing the effort which always drew in people – tree experts who wanted to know more and many others who gave over the $100 needed to donate a tree. When  he talked about the project to the crowd, some, he said, teared up as the intensity of the deed dawned on them.

The Civil War remains unparalleled in the whole of US in terms of the carnage in brought even after 150 years. Historians reveal that one in every three households of the South lost a family member to the said skirmish and all in all, about 2% of the whole US population died in action. Today, that percentage is translated as over 6 million deaths – 4,100 per day, everyday in those grim four years.

Some have given the number of deaths’ estimate at 740,000 but in those times, records were poorly kept especially within the Confederate and this means historians will never really know the extent of the Civil War’s damage when it comes to lives lost.

“We’re prepared to go there if we need to,” Wyatt said should historians give a number higher than that estimate.

The group has been working closely with the National Park Service along with other partners, including websites and, for the interactive map that will allow anyone going through the route to find the specific tree planted for every soldier. Wyatt anticipates that travelers in the future will be able to point out trees individually through their smartphones then use an app to bring about information of every Civil War soldier.

(Left) Journey through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Site; (Right) Route the project is going to occupy
(Left) Journey through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Site; (Right) Route the project is going to occupy

She also predicts that in a few years’ time, the stand of trees comprised of a lot of breeds which include red sunset maples, chestnut and willow oaks, red-twigged dogwoods, red cedars and eastern redbuds will be so “impossible not to recognize”.

Just last week, Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd stated that the city plans to donate at least 500 trees to the effort as it, she says, has become a parcel of Leesburg’s “lexicon of planting”.

“It’s ongoing. I expect it to last for a generation or more,” she added.

Check Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership for the information on how to donate a tree online.

– USA Today reports



Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE