Confederate Cemetery Preserves Memories of the Fallen
By Linda Wheeler
Thursday, January 11, 2007
That indefinable something that draws people to cemeteries, particularly to Civil
War cemeteries, may never be articulated, but Ben Ritter gave it a try.
"These are the men who actually fought," said Ritter, speaking of
Confederate soldiers buried in Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester. "I can
be with them here, near them. I find it kind of peaceful."
The place that Ritter finds peaceful is a military cemetery established by civilians
at the end of the war. The 5.5-acre plot, now contained within Mount Hebron
Cemetery, represents the work of a women’s group that did the seemingly impossible
in the months after the war. Its members raised $14,000 to buy the land, moved
2,494 bodies from surrounding battlefields and private cemeteries, and dedicated
the grounds on Oct. 25, 1866.
Those men were not native sons sent home for burial but rather strangers who
had died in the battles of Winchester, Kernstown, Cedar Creek and Cool Spring,
defending the town and the surrounding area. They are buried according to their
home states, in sections labeled Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia,
Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina,
Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. There were hundreds whose names were unknown,
and they were buried in a mass grave at the center of Stonewall.
A memorial there reads: "Who They Were, None Know; What They Were, All
This is one of a number of Confederate cemeteries in the country. In Virginia,
there are much larger ones at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, but Stonewall
is small enough to feel intimate.
Among the many simple marble stones is an impressive memorial to one of the
most revered Confederate officers, Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby of Fauquier County,
known as the "Black Knight of the Confederacy." Ashby, who was an
accomplished horseman, quickly rose through the ranks to command the Ashby Brigade
under Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Outside Harrisonburg on June
6, 1862, Ashby’s horse was killed under him, and he led the charge on foot.
He was shot through the heart and died instantly.
Jackson, in mourning Ashby, said, "as a partisan officer I never knew
Ashby shares a grave with his brother Richard, who was killed by a Union patrol
a year earlier at Harpers Ferry. Both bodies were moved to Stonewall Cemetery
at its dedication. The granite stone memorial reads, "The Brothers Ashby."
Confederate Memorial Day is observed at the cemetery every June 6, the date
on which Turner Ashby died.
The cemetery has evolved over the years. The Ladies Memorial Association pushed
each state represented at Stonewall to erect a state memorial. The committee
raised the funds for two memorial shafts, one for the unknown and the other
for the Virginia section, dedicating both on June 6, 1879.
Other states followed: South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia, Louisiana, North
Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
The work begun by the association is carried on today by Turner Ashby Chapter
No. 54, United Daughters of the Confederacy. The chapter maintains the tombstones
and conducts the annual Confederate Memorial Day program.
Across the street is another military cemetery, this one also dedicated in
1866, but it honors Union soldiers who died in the Winchester area. The Winchester
National Cemetery contains the graves of veterans from other wars as well.
Ritter, a retired transportation analyst, knows Stonewall well. In 1962, he
and Lucy Fitzhugh Kurtz prepared the first and only roster of the soldiers buried
there. It was reprinted in 1984 and is still available.
He’s not sure now how he became involved in the project, but he recalls Kurtz’s
telling him that she wanted it to be completed before she died, and she was
85 at the time.
"She had a typed list, one that had been copied from other lists, and
there were lots of typos," Ritter said. "We wanted to match it against
the actual tombstones. Miss Lucy brought a folding chair out to the cemetery,
and she held her list while I read the tombstone to her. She was hard of hearing,
so mostly we were yelling back and forth."
They used regimental histories as a cross-check and produced their final roster.
Ritter says the roster needs to be updated and corrected. There are now resources
available that he and Kurtz did not have at their disposal, such as the Confederate
records at the National Archives. Ritter is not sure that he is up to doing
all the extra research, but he knows it needs to be done. And then, he’d have
to find a publisher.
Meanwhile, he is busy indexing local newspaper files for the war years and
occasionally showing visitors around the cemetery.
Although the numbers attending the annual Confederate Memorial Day ceremony
has slipped from 20,000 when war veterans were still alive to march in the parade
to about 100 people in recent years, Ritter is not deterred by what may seem
a lack of public interest in the cemetery and its mission.
"I know, as long as I am alive, I will be there every June 6th,"
This year’s program will begin at 7 p.m.
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