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Ladies Memorial Associations were plentiful after the Civil War but began to wane in the late 1800s. The Fredericksburg group, formed May 10, 1866, is still going strong. Membership and collection of funds are regulated.
The federal government funded proper burials of Union dead, but Confederates typically remained where they fell until ladies stepped in.
BY EDIE GROSS
At first, they were buried where they fell.
On battlefields. By roadsides. On farms.
And in shallow, scattered graves those soldiers might have remained if not for the legions of Southern women who demanded proper burials for the Confederate dead.
They called themselves Ladies Memorial Associations, and in the years after the Civil War, their white-gloved ranks acted as quasi-governmental bodies, securing land for cemeteries and hiring crews to collect and reinter the fallen.
They raised money for headstones and erected monuments to their fallen brothers, husbands, fathers and sons.
With prayers and parades, they organized some of this country's earliest Memorial Day observances.
And then, as the War Between the States slipped from recent memory to distant past, the Ladies Memorial Associations began to fade away.
Today, only a handful remain, including the Fredericksburg association, founded on May 10, 1866.
Like the ladies who came before them, they faithfully maintain the city's Confederate Cemetery on Washington Avenue at Amelia Street and organize Memorial Day activities there.
"I think it's wonderful it's lasted so long," said Lou Silvey, who joined about 25 years ago. "We must have some good Fredericksburg women around here. We're persistent. We never let go."
When the Civil War ended, the U.S. government dispatched crews to collect the bodies of Union soldiers for burial in national cemeteries.
But no one organization was willing and able to do the same for Confederate soldiers, according to "Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies Memorial Associations and The Lost Cause," a book by Purdue University history professor Caroline Janney.
GETTING THE JOB DONE
Recognizing the need, Southern women rallied to the cause. Within a year of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, roughly 70 Ladies Memorial Associations had sprung up around the South, according to Janney's research.
They were particularly important in Virginia, where so many battlefields had become de facto graveyards. Eventually, the seven associations in Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Petersburg, Winchester and Richmond would reinter the remains of more than 75,500 soldiers, nearly 28 percent of the South's war dead, according to Janney.
In war-ravaged Fredericksburg, the association managed to raise $1,200 initially, enough money to purchase several acres next to the city cemetery.
They then went to work, hiring crews to move remains of 3,535 soldiers from area battlefields to the property at the end of Amelia Street.
The dead were from 14 Southern states, many of which later donated money for a cemetery wall, gated entrance and engraved headstones.
There was Pvt. Matthew Bennett Cotton of Georgia, who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg and originally buried on a nearby farm.
And 1st Lt. Oscar Ewing Stuart of Mississippi, killed five months later at Marye's Heights.
And Pvt. William Harris of Texas, whose body was first buried near Plank Road after the Battle of the Wilderness.
If they could be identified--only one-third of them were--they received wooden grave markers, later replaced with Georgia marble.
The unknown soldiers were laid to rest under a monument to the Confederate dead.
"I can't even imagine how it must've been to take that job," said Roy Perry of Matthew Fontaine Maury Camp 1722 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "We, today, cannot even come close to understanding how and what these ladies went through in that time."
By constructing monuments and holding Memorial Day ceremonies, the ladies were also able to do something the men of that time could not: Give Southerners a chance to mourn "the lost cause" publicly.
A large gathering of Confederate veterans might have been seen as rebellious or even treasonous. But women were seen as apolitical, and the events they organized were often given a pass.
"They were able to pull strings," said Perry. "You've got to tip your hat."
FUTURE IS ROOTED IN PAST
Nationwide, interest in Ladies Memorial Associations waned in the late 1800s, as early members died, moved away or developed interests in fresh causes.
In the ensuing decades, many remaining groups handed off their grave-tending responsibilities to churches or the newer United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In Virginia, only two Ladies Memorial Associations remain, in Fredericksburg and Petersburg, according to Janney.
"People's interests change," Silvey said, "and one generation doesn't always appreciate what's gone ahead. I think it's just remarkable we're still in existence."
Here, membership is limited to 20 women. Some can trace their family's local presence back generations, while others are more recent arrivals.
Virginia Johnson's mother, Barbara Crookshanks, was a longtime president of the organization, despite being a West Virginia native.
It wasn't uncommon, said Johnson, for out-of-towners to call her mother and ask for information about ancestors buried in the Confederate Cemetery.
Crookshanks, a history lover, passed away in the fall and will be honored during Monday's Memorial Day service.
Johnson, the association's secretary, said the organization likely thrives because of its focus on historical preservation.
"Having a focus and not passing it is what keeps us going," she said.
Current President Ginnie Branscome also credits help from other local organizations.
For instance, members of Perry's group have even spent Halloween nights in the cemetery to deter vandals.
"We don't want anything to happen to those stones. It's sacred ground, it really is," said Perry, whose great-great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, is buried on the city side of the cemetery. "If we can't protect them, who will?"
Jacqueline Descaro, vice president of the Fredericksburg chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, describes the property as "kind of like a family cemetery."
Six of her ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and she now volunteers to plant flags and luminarias on Confederate graves for Memorial Day.
"They're still veterans and they're all Americans, and they should be honored," she said. "To me, they need to be respected. That's what Memorial Day is all about."
The day's activities are the most public event of the year for the local Ladies Memorial Association. Its charter forbids fundraising efforts, said Branscome, so you won't catch it sponsoring bake sales or the like.
Instead, members work quietly in the background, applying for grants and accepting donations that, along with some investments, cover the cemetery's yearly expenses of roughly $20,000.
While similar organizations have disappeared over the years, Branscome said she hopes Fredericksburg's association will always be active.
"Everybody here feels dedicated to doing what we can for the cemetery," she said. "I won't be here [in 150 years], but hopefully somebody will be doing exactly what we're doing."
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
The Fredericksburg Ladies Memorial Association was founded in 1866 to reinter the Confederate dead and care for their graves. For more information about the nonprofit, visit cemetery
Fredericksburg resident William Freehling, historian and author of "The Road to Disunion" and other works, will deliver the keynote speech at the Confederate Cemetery at 10 a.m. Monday.
Visitors are encouraged to bring chairs or blankets to the free event, which is hosted by the Ladies Memorial Association.
A separate ceremony will take place at the Confederate Cemetery in Spotsylvania, off State Route 208 near the courthouse, at 2 p.m.