LEESBURG, Va. - On a busy stretch of suburban highway an hour's drive
south of the Mason-Dixon Line, workers are digging holes in a grass
median, then carefully planting thin, delicate trees: oak, maple, cedar
and dogwood - 108 in all - before winter sets in.
looks like a typical highway beautification, but it's part of a quiet
effort that seeks to answer a very big question: 150 years after the end
of the Civil War, can trees heal the nation's soul?
620,000 soldiers died fighting from 1861 to 1865, far more than in any
war Americans have fought since. Yet for all the intensity surrounding
the war's 150th anniversary, almost no one - including most historians -
can say for sure exactly how many died, or who nearly half of the dead
were. Many soldiers, especially those who fought for the South, never
received a proper burial.
Along the historic highway that stretches from Thomas Jefferson's
home, near Charlottesville, Va., to the national cemetery at Gettysburg,
Pa., a small group has spent the past two years literally laying the
groundwork to plant a tree for every one of the dead.
completed, the $65 million project will be the largest man-made pathway
of trees on the globe, stretching 180 miles north to south over three
Its scale brings home the war's grim reality: So many men
died in those four years that if workers simply planted along both sides
of the route, each tree would stand just three feet from the next.
organizers are asking communities along the route to devote small
swaths of land to creating groves. They've already planted 248 trees at
Bliss Orchard at Gettysburg, part of a larger effort by the National
Park Service to restore the battlefield site to what it looked like in
Cate Magennis Wyatt, a former Virginia secretary of commerce
who heads the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, a
well-funded public-private effort that has already turned the route into
a "scenic byway," says the idea for trees was not a hard sell for
communities along the route. They had been asked by state officials to
come up with a way to commemorate the war's 150th anniversary.
called me and said, 'Cate, 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?' "
Wyatt suggested planting an allée, or alley, of trees - she
knew that Australians had created one after World War I - and soon
people all along the route were asking how they could help.
"Tree people love this," says Virginia arborist Peter Hart, who has championed the project.
an arborists' conference recently, Hart manned a table publicizing the
effort and says it was "constantly crowded" with tree experts wanting to
know more and many forking over the $100 it costs to donate a tree. As
he explained the effort, he says, a few even teared up as they absorbed
"They're excited about this," says Hart, who laid
out $200 to plant trees for two great-grandfathers who fought in the war
After 150 years, the Civil War remains
unprecedented in the USA in its carnage. Historians estimate that one in
three households in the South lost a family member and that overall
about 2% of the USA population died in the line of duty. Today that
would be the equivalent of more than 6 million dead, or 4,100 per day,
every day, for four years.
Some estimates put the war's death toll
as high as 740,000, but poorly kept records, especially for Confederate
soldiers, mean that historians likely will never know its full extent.
Should historians confirm the higher count, Wyatt says, "We're prepared
to go there if we need to."
Using GPS technology, the group is working with the National Park
Service and other partners, including the online sites ancestry.com and
fold3.com, to create an interactive map that will allow anyone traveling
the route to find a tree planted for an individual soldier. Wyatt
foresees that travelers someday will be able to pinpoint individual
trees using a smartphone, then use an app to call up each soldier's
Within just a few years, she predicts,
the stands of trees - red sunset maples, chestnut and willow oaks,
red-twigged dogwoods, red cedars and eastern redbuds, among others -
will soon be "impossible not to recognize."
finished digging holes along the highway one cold morning this week,
Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd said the city plans to contribute at
least 500 trees. The effort, she says, has become "part of the lexicon
of planting" in Leesburg.
"It's ongoing," Umstattd says. "I expect it to last for a generation or more."
Those looking to donate a tree can do so online at the the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership's website.