Fredericksburg Battlefield Memorial Lights Up, 150 Years After Civil War

BY Justin Scuiletti  May 30, 2011 at 3:31 PM EST

Fredericksburg, Va. | As part of a Memorial Day tradition, more than 15,000 luminaries were set up over the weekend at Fredericksburg Battlefield to represent each of the 15,300 Union soldiers from the Civil War buried atop a hill called Marye’s Heights.

In 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg was fought here. Three years later, the land was purchased by the United States government to bury the fallen. It now belongs to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, the fourth-largest Civil War burial ground.

The luminary tradition began in 1995 in the footsteps of the Antietam National Battlefield luminary project, which occurs every November. Fredericksburg moved its memorial to the Saturday before each Memorial Day with luminaries placed among the grave markers — instead of the battlefield itself — to honor the men who fought and died there.

This April marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, a fact not forgotten by Donald Pfanz, staff historian of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, which encompasses Fredericksburg Battlefield.

“It forces us to not only look back and look at the consequences of the war for us, but also the sacrifice that so many men made in order to keep this nation free.”

As night falls, the luminaries take on the look of stars among the gravestones. A majority of the grave markers bear no names — dog tags were not in use at the time. A passing volunteer tells a tour group that they will find no famous soldiers buried here. That does not stop the visitors from walking the grassy paths and stopping at each of the candle-lit stones to honor many of the soldiers. A bugled “Taps,” the song that represented “lights out” for soldiers during the war, fills the air every 30 minutes.

The sight of the luminaries is not a new one for David Jennings, a Fredericksburg resident and frequent visitor, but it continues to have the same effect as the first time he visited years ago. He pauses after climbing the steep path up the hill and stares out into the field of flickering memorials. “I get weepy every time I get up here,” he says.

Not far behind is another Fredericksburg resident, first-time visitor Pauline Hart, whose eyes grow wide as the luminaries come into her sight for the first time. Her sentiments echo the looks on many of the visitors faces, which she puts to words. “It’s truly amazing that each light represents a soldier,” she says amidst the 15,300 flickering flames. “It blows me away.”

Read more about the Memorial Day Luminary, as well as the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.