This Saturday (12/16), volunteers across the country will come together to honor and remember veterans. On today’s Virginia Currents, 88.9 WCVE’s Phil Liles has more on the local Wreaths Across America event and efforts to document the lives of fallen soldiers.
There are more than 9,000 soldiers buried at Richmond National Cemetery, the majority from the Union Army, most of their identities unknown.
JoAnn Meaker: This cemetery opened up 150 years ago in 1867, they took the soldiers from Belle Isle, they reinterred them here.
Author JoAnn Meaker says the site also includes those first buried at Oakwood and Hollywood cemeteries as well as remains found in nearby farmers’ fields.
Meaker: There are so many stories of men here, buried here, who survived the war but died subsequently to it.
Meaker will join dozens of other volunteers here on Saturday to participate in Wreaths Across America. The mission of the event, says local director Mike Imperio, is “Remember, Honor and Teach.”
Organizers often share this quote: “A person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.”
Mike Imperio: When you say that person’s name, it brings them to the forefront of your mind, so every time you say a person’s name who’s passed away, in essence it’s my belief that they haven’t really passed away; they’re still here, you just haven’t seen them for awhile.
A personal connection to Richmond National Cemetery led Meaker to get involved with Wreaths Across America.
JoAnn Meaker: I attended the ceremony three years ago and the coordinator gives a speech and at the end of the speech, he says as your taking the wreath and laying it on the headstone, remember the name of the soldier and then go home and research that soldier.
Meaker took that to heart. She already had experience researching her husband’s relative Addison Beardsley.
Meaker: I found out all sorts of things about him, I read his regimental history book, I saw a picture of him in that book-- sent chills up my arm. So I decided I wanted to do all the others and so I spent three years researching all the other Civil War soldiers that are buried here, all 800 and sixty some odd of them.
Those soldiers experiences are documented in Meaker’s book Stories Beneath the Stones.
That’s the resting place for Tobias Ulrich, who was 25 when he enlisted with the 16th Iowa Infantry. Not far away is Thomas Kauffman, who had a disability and was first rejected from the service.
Meaker: But he kept at it and he went and reenlisted or tried to enlist in another company. They accepted him and he actually got promoted and he was made into a sergeant, but then he got dismissed again because of a disability. Well, he was determined, he enlisted in a third unit in Iowa.
Both men were a part of Sherman’s Army and survived the war. They were headed home. But on May 11, 1865 a severe storm struck their camp in Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood. They were killed by lightning.
JoAnn Meaker: I came across the one soldier’s name Tobias, killed by lightning, then I came across Thomas killed by lighting, same date, so I did some research at the library on the weather, sure enough there was a massive thunderstorm that night and there were several soldiers that were killed but these two are here in this cemetery.
Meaker’s research uncovered soldiers who were poets and families torn apart by the war.
Meaker: In a lot of ways, I mean we’re in the middle of the cemetery so it is sad but what I try to do is focus on their lives and who they were before they joined and worked so hard to achieve what they thought was important.
On Saturday morning, participants will lay a wreath at the Virginia War Memorial. Then several dozen motorcyclists will escort the tractor trailer full of wreaths to the cemetery. The ceremony will include posting of the colors, patriotic songs, a rifle salute and amazing grace played on bagpipes.
Cody Finchum will be in uniform on Saturday to lay a wreath on one of the graves.
Finchum: There’s a lot of people who died in previous wars that people want to honor them and it helps out for those families that have had that loss and it’s really good to give back to the community for all the freedom they have given to you.
Finchum's mother Rhonda also takes part, with her sister and daughter.
Rhonda Finchum: My sister volunteered me and we usually do everything together, and so when she did it I started doing it with her, and my son being in the Marines, it was something I could pay back. And I get really emotional about it.
Finchum says part of the family tradition is her daughter puts a wreath on the same headstone.
Rhonda Finchum: She’s taken a picture every year she’s done it, and that to me shows I brought her up right, to honor these guys that gave their lives for us. That’s why I do it.
Wreaths Across America began in Arlington in 1992 and expanded to Richmond National Cemetery 11 years ago. On Saturday, ceremonies will take place in more than 1,000 locations across the country. For Virginia Currents, I’m Phil Liles, WCVE News.