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Trees Tell Lost Tales of US Civil War Soldiers

  • Deborah Block

The U.S. Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history. From 1861 to 1865, at least 620,000 soldiers died in the fighting.

The war was fought between the states of the North - the Union, and the South - the Confederacy, which were divided over states’ rights, including slavery.

Now 150 years later, the soldiers who died are being memorialized through a tree planting project that will span four eastern states where many of the battles took place.

These are the faces of soldiers who were pitted against one another during the U.S. Civil War. More than half the soldiers died and most are no longer remembered.

Now the group Journey Through Hallowed Ground is keeping their memory alive by planting trees, or dedicating existing trees, to each of those soldiers.

Trees are being planted along a 290-kilometer road from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - where the most famous battle occurred - to the home in Virginia of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president. Beth Erickson is with the organization.

“Each tree is a life," said Erickson. "As you see these trees one after another, it will truly make an impact.”

The first trees were planted in November on a former plantation called Oatlands in Leesburg, Virginia. Today, the early 19th century home is owned by a historic trust.

Andrea McGimsey, executive director of Oatlands, says the estate was a natural place to begin the tree project.

“Oatlands has some very old trees and they were here during the Civil War time. Many of them are actually going to be adopted as part of this project,” she said.

McGimsey says Oatlands was also part of civil war history. “Oatlands had 128 slaves in 1860, right before the Civil War started. And also the family who lived here had two sons who joined the Confederate Army.”

Richard Williams, the grandson of the last family that lived in the house, says one of his ancestors was a famous Confederate general. His family still owns property next to Oatlands, and they too are involved in planting the trees.

“We’re hoping as private landowners we can also show it’s a great success and encourage some other private landowners,” Williams stated.

The $65 million project is being financed through private contributions, in which individuals can also help by donating $100 for a tree. The trees will be geotagged to allow Smart Phone users to learn the story of a soldier.

“These trees will have a number associated with a person. They can use GPS technology to find out who these people were,” Erickson noted.

Eleanor Adams has contributed a tree to honor her ancestor, Joseph McGowin, a 23-year-old Confederate soldier from the southern state of Alabama who was shot and killed. He fought, along with several brothers, only two of whom survived the war.

McGowin wrote letters to his family about the hardships on the battlefield. “He talks about sickness, the heat in the summertime, the bad food - really a tough time being a soldier in those days,” she said.

Adams hopes other relatives will join her in planting trees for the rest of the brothers who died in the Civil War.