Memorial Day Speech May 31, 2010 – Jerry H. Brent

Speech presented May 31, 2010, by Jerry H. Brent at the Ladies Memorial Association program at the Confederate Cemetery. 

As we gather today to honor those that have fought, and are still fighting, in our nation’s wars, I thought it might be interesting to go back and examine the time period immediately after the Civil War. The feelings that pervaded among the general population and the many veterans, both north and south, eventually led to the creation of a national military park and the preservation of the ground upon which they had fought and spilled so much of their blood. Not surprisingly, several individuals who played active rolls in these events rest in the Confederate Cemetery or the Fredericksburg City Cemetery. I’ll note this as I go along.

Nowhere else but the Fredericksburg area can be found four major Civil War battles in such close proximity. In the ensuing years, veterans, on both sides, returned to the local battlefields to remember old times and honor fallen comrades. Monuments were dedicated as permanent memorials. Soldiers’ cemeteries were established and Memorial Day celebrations were attended by returning veterans and the local populace.

The first order of business after the fighting ended was to find a proper burial place for the thousands of soldiers that had died both of wounds and disease. It was very important that the dead be buried properly and in a place of honor. In July of 1865, the Fredericksburg National Cemetery was established by the Federal government as the final resting place of the Union causalities. Construction began in 1866 and over the next three years the remains of Union soldiers were dug up throughout the surrounding countryside, mostly in unmarked graves, and brought to the new cemetery and reinterred there in a place befitting their sacrifice. Today, over 15,000 Union soldiers lie in that cemetery.

According similar treatment to the dead was just as important to Southerners as it was to those in the north. By 1864, townspeople had begun to bury Confederates in the City Cemetery, in neat graves. But, after the war ended, the Federal government, quite understandably, was not about to foot the bill to so honor their recently vanquished foe. Thus it fell to private individuals and groups to find the means to create a cemetery for their fallen heroes. In 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association was organized to accomplish this important task. The plan was to raise as much money locally and within the state as possible, and then issue an appeal to be sent all throughout the southern states for funds. In 1867 the association was able to purchase the property that would soon become the Confederate Cemetery. Soon the work began of gathering the dead from the surrounding battlefields resulting in the graves of approximately 3,300 that you see before you today.

Today, the Federal government still cares for the National Cemetery and the Ladies still care for the Confederate Cemetery. I leave you decide which is the most powerful organization.

Thus, at first, all efforts were focused on the proper burial and memorializing of the dead. But once this task was accomplished, there began to be an interest amongst the veterans of the conflict to gather and relive old times and honor their fallen comrades.

Although Memorial Day celebrations began soon after the war ended, one of the first such large scale gatherings documented in the local newspapers occurred in May of 1884 when about 200 veterans of the First Corps-Army of the Potomac arrived in Fredericksburg. Initially veterans groups from the north and south meet separately. As animosities brought about as a result of the war faded, however, the old foes often would meet together as friends. Certainly the seeds of reconciliation had been sown by this time as the town was bedecked with flags, bunting and banners. The entourage was warmly greeted by the mayor, the City Council, a number of Confederate veterans and a committee of citizens. The entire party then proceeded to the Opera House where a splendid feast had been laid out by the city government. The group consisted of a number of prominent veterans, both Union and Confederate, and over the next 3 days they walked the battlefields and explained the engagements in which they had participated only 20 years earlier. At Fredericksburg, Gen’l Abner Doubleday described the union advance to Prospect Hill and at Marye’s Heights, Union artillery chief, Genl. Henry T. Hunt directed the groups’ attention to Stafford Heights and pointed out the position of the Federal artillery across the river and proceeded to offer a detailed account of Burnside’s crossing. Lee’s old warhorse, Gen’l James Longstreet, narrated in detail the operation of the Confederate forces and spoke of the carnage he recalled in front of the stone wall. “A truce was called after the fight to bury the dead”, Longstreet said. “I have seen a great many battlefields, but none so shocking as this. The dead were buried in numerous pits, 8 feet deep and 30 feet square.”

The next day the group proceeded to Chancellorsville where the Rev. James Power Smith, the pastor at the Presbyterian Church and formerly of Stonewall Jackson’s staff, pointed out the place and described the council of Genls. Lee and Jackson in the woods over a small fire kindled by themselves. Proceeding to the spot of Jackson’s wounding, Smith described the difficulty in getting Jackson off the field and the treatment of his wounds.

In September of 1884, a confederate reunion was held involving veterans from the local units: the 30th Va., the 9th Va. Cavalry and the Fredericksburg Artillery. At an early hour, crowds from the surrounding counties began to pour into town and by 10am the streets were thronged with people. Following a parade through town, everyone assembled on Scott’s Island, which had been appropriately decorated for the occasion. General Fitzhugh Lee was present and the featured speaker. He asserted that ‘they did not meet in these reunions to revive bitter memories of a stormy past, or to dig up again buried political issues, but simply to clasp hands as comrades of grand deeds, to talk over a past that is secure, and to go forth with fresh inspiration and fresh courage for the duties of today and the hopes of the future.” James Power Smith spoke next. Smith remembered the first time he had ever seen Fredericksburg was on the Sunday before the battle, when he sat on his horse next to Gen’l. Jackson and saw the refugees streaming from town in the midst of the Union bombardment. After the speeches the crowd, estimated at 2,000 enjoyed a bountiful meal followed by fireworks from a barge in the river.

Reunions were not always large grand affairs. Throughout the mid 1880s Company A of the 30th VA regiment met annually at Alum Springs. Always in attendance, and the center of attention was Lucy Anne Cox, who was married to one of the members of the regiment. Remarkably, Lucy remained with the regiment for the entire war, assisting her husband and administering to the sick and wounded. Upon her death in 1891 an impressive stone was erected on her grave in the Confederate Cemetery.

A Union veteran, Major J. C. Kerbay visited Fredericksburg on Memorial Day in 1889 and wrote, “Fredericksburg, what a cloud of war memories hangs over this old town! The mere mention of the name awakens the veteran’s slumbering interests;—–I have estimated that every soldier of the Army of the Potomac, as well as that of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, has, at one time or another been at Fredericksburg.

And then Kerbay voiced a sentiment that was becoming paramount in the minds of the veterans and the local populace. “Perhaps the time may come”, Kerbay said, “when this old town, so close to the Capital, may become a Mecca; such as has been made of Gettysburg, and maybe the blood-stained soil may yet produce a crop of monuments that will equal Gettysburg. Who knows—perhaps the government will, in time, preserve more of this battle-ground as a National Park.”

In the 1890s national parks were being established at other battlefields including Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chattanooga and Antietam. But the Federal government was slower to move in the Fredericksburg area, primarily because several of the battles were stunning Confederate victories! Thus it fell to private entities and individuals to initially attempt to preserve the battlefields. In 1891, the Chancellorsville Battlefield Association was incorporated. The officers and directors were primarily veterans of both sides along with some prominent Fredericksburg residents. The organization’s goal was, through funds raised from the sale of stock, to purchase local battlefield property. The Association began to purchase land at Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania Court House, eventually acquiring approximately 800 acres on each battlefield. While successful in initially acquiring properties, by 1893 the Association was in financial difficulty and was eventually forced, in 1895, to dispose of its holdings. Thus these important battlefield properties were again in private hands.

A separate movement to establish a Park began in 1896 when the Fredericksburg City Council passed resolutions urging the formation of a Park. A local committee was formed to foster a Park and to elicit the help of the U. S. Congress. On April 16, a mass meeting was held at the Opera House to organize a group for the park establishment. The local paper wrote, “Bowering’s Band discoursed sweet music during the evening, and the meeting adjourned with a feeling that with a strong pull, a long pull, and a pull altogether, we will soon have established a great Battlefield Park on the historic Battlefields of this section. During the War, A. B. Bowering was the principal musician of the 30th Virginia Regiment. After the war Bowering’s brass band would typically perform at any number of events in the area. Bowering is buried in the City Cemetery and the inscription on his stone suggests that he composed the funeral dirge and led the band at the funeral of Stonewall Jackson.

In May 1900, the Society of the Army of the Potomac, the largest Union veterans group in the country, held its annual reunion in Fredericksburg. This was the first time that this group had met on southern soil. With bills to create a local national Military park circulating in Congress, local battlefield preservationists achieved a coup when President McKinley, himself a veteran, accepted an invitation to attend. It was hoped that a visit by the President would result in political capital and the easier passage of a bill. The Society officially endorsed the creation of a Park and hoped Congress would soon act. On May 25, at the exercises in the Courthouse, Gen’l Dan Sickles gave a long oration, stating that “Fredericksburg is consecrated by precious historical memories….within a small area near the spot where we are now seated, are the great battlefields where more men fought and fell than upon any space of equal dimensions on the face of the earth. These famous battlefields should be made a National Military Park.” Later that night at the Opera House, Judge John T. Goolrick welcomed the former officers and dignitaries to the city and observed that he was the most distinguished guest present, being one of the few former Confederate privates in attendance.

Despite the positive publicity generated for the creation of the park and resolutions sent supporting its creation, Congress did not act. Though the turn of the century attempt to create a military park had failed, interest in permanently preserving the battlefields did not wane in the ensuing years. Veterans, tourists, students and writers continued to visit the area in large numbers.

In 1921, a huge military maneuver at the Wilderness, involving some 4200 Marines, again brought nationwide publicity to the area. The program involved demonstrations geared toward battleship defense against airplanes. The outlines of a battleship and an aircraft carrier were laid out on the ground near Wilderness Tavern, (near the present day intersection of routes 3 and 20). For four days the Marines defended the battleship against attack. Bombers flew overhead and searchlights, blank charges and rockets lit up the night. Throughout the exercises, the Marines staged “amphibious” landings, using Wilderness Run to mark the “shoreline.”

This event attracted thousands of people and received national attention. Among those present were President Harding, high ranking military officers and members of Congress. President and Mrs. Harding actually spent the night at the site in a tent that was called the Canvas White House. The national and statewide attention the maneuvers brought to the area helped to rekindle an organized effort to establish a park. By the way, the property where these maneuvers occurred was recently purchased by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

The efforts to create a park during the past 25 years finally began to bear fruit in 1924. That year Congress authorized the creation of a Commission to inspect the battlefields around Fredericksburg and to report on the feasibility of marking and preserving them. The Commission would consist of a Union and Confederate veteran and a current officer in the Corps of Engineers. As they had done so often in past efforts to preserve the battlefields, local residents played a key role. Judge John T. Goolrick, the private who had greeted the dignitaries and expressed his importance at the 1900 gathering of the Society of the Army of the Potomac, was designated the Confederate veteran on the Commission. Upon Judge Goolrick’s death in 1925, his place was taken by another Fredericksburg resident, Vivian Minor Fleming. Goolrick is buried in the City cemetery, and Fleming in the Confederate cemetery.

And finally in 1927, the Act to establish the Military Park was approved by Congress. At a Commission meeting in 1929, Fleming stated, somewhat prophetically, that their recommendations, everybody realized, did not provide for enough area to be acquired and that the importance of the fields called for greater holdings. He believed that the work should be finished as outlined and then augmented by requests for more land.

In 1932 the Park had acquired over 2,100 acres. Today it encompasses approximately 8,300 acres. But the fight to preserve these hallowed grounds continues. There is still much more to do, much more to save. On average 30 acres of civil war battlefields are lost every day. How better to honor the memory of these men that lie before you and those in the National Cemetery than to continue to preserve the ground over which they fought and died. And what a noble cause, to perpetuate the legacy of battlefield preservation begun so long ago by the veterans and local residents of this community.


Happel, Ralph. A History of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Park. Fredericksburg, 1955.

Mink, Eric J. The Link/Atkins Tract. National Park Service, 2009

Phanz, Donald C. War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Page One History Publications. Richmond, Va. 2003. Pages 115-117.

Fredericksburg Star: 1884