In 1993, Montfort Academy fifth-grader Kent Ingalls was preparing for the annual placement of flags on graves at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Kent’s teacher told the class about a longtime cemetery mystery: flowers that appear every year at the gravestone of a Union soldier from Massachusetts.
Those flowers were no mystery to Kent, however. He told his classmates that after the Civil War, the soldier’s family had sent $100 to his great-great-great-grandfather, cemetery superintendent Andrew Birdsall, to place flowers at Jerome Peirce’s grave every Memorial Day, and his descendants had carried on the tradition for well over a century.
That year, The Free Lance–Star published an article about the longtime tradition. It turned out that the National Park Service knew little more than that Peirce had enlisted in the 36th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in 1862 at age 31, and that he had been killed May 12, 1864, at the Bloody Angle on the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. No other details were known about how he was killed, the family he left behind, or how his final resting place ended up on a hill on Marye’s Heights.
The story soon spread beyond Fredericksburg, and an article appeared in the May 1994 issue of Reader’s Digest. The magazine’s editor had learned that Peirce had left behind a widow, Albinia Peirce, and a daughter, Lucy, in Orange, Mass. In addition, he discovered more than 150 letters Peirce had written that were—and are still—in the possession of his great-grandniece in Dayton, Ohio.
GOING TO WAR
Peirce enlisted in the Union army Aug. 4, 1862, with 14 other men from his town. Soon thereafter, with minimal training, the regiment left for Washington, D.C. Assigned to Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps, the regiment soon found itself in Maryland. From there, it crossed into Virginia, ending up in Falmouth. In December 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 36th Massachusetts was positioned below town, near the lower pontoon bridge, but it did not participate in that battle. In January 1863, the regiment took part in the infamous “Mud March.”
In March 1863, the 9th Corps left Virginia and headed west. It crisscrossed Kentucky, participated in the Battle of Vicksburg, moved to Jackson, Miss., returned to Kentucky, and then moved into eastern Tennessee. It took part in the Battle of Campbell’s Station, and in late 1863, supported the defense of Knoxville. The regiment then spent more time in Tennessee, before being ordered to Annapolis, Md., where it arrived April 6, 1864.
A few days later, the regiment marched to Washington, where President Lincoln and Burnside reviewed the 9th Corps to the cheers of a large crowd. In a letter to his wife, Peirce wrote:
“A great day yesterday. We were received very enthusiastically by Genl. Burnside and President Lincoln on the balcony of the Willard Hotel to salute us as we passed. The president looks pale and careworn—very.”
The corps caught up with the Army of the Potomac near Brandy Station and, on May 5, moved toward the Rapidan River. It soon crossed Germanna Ford and the next morning, proceeded down the Germanna Plank Road (now State Route 3) to Wilderness Tavern, where it prepared for action.
On May 6, the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness, the 9th Corps entered the battle by moving against the Confederate center. By nightfall, the heavy fighting came to a halt, but by May 11, the regiment was ordered to move to the developing battle near Spotsylvania Court House.
‘A BRAVE SOLDIER’
On the morning of May 12, a cold and rainy day, the regiment advanced against the eastern face of the “Muleshoe Salient,” a huge outward bulge in the center of the Confederate line. It first drew fire at 4:30 a.m.
In a letter to Albinia, Peirce’s commander wrote:
“Jerome knew our danger, yet he faced it like a brave soldier and was first of our company to fall. I did not see him fall as we were falling back under the cover of a fence, the enemy coming down on us and occupying the ground on which he fell. Consequently his body was in the enemy’s hands for about 15 minutes. It lay in a very exposed position, and it was impossible to move it. His body had to remain until after dark when we buried it the best that circumstances would permit. He was killed at about 7 AM. I found the bullet that killed him, which I took from his left breast. He must have died instantly. His grave is in a pine grove—well marked.”
RECOVERING THE FALLEN
The first postwar effort to recover the Union dead from Southern battlefields took place in June 1865. Fredericksburg National Cemetery was established one year later, and it would eventually contain more than 15,000 burials, with approximately 84 percent of those buried there being “Unknown.” During the next two years, burial parties scoured the Fredericksburg area, bringing in wagon load after wagon load of human remains. It took until fall 1868 to finish the work of disinterring the dead from the local battlefields and transferring them to the cemetery. Peirce’s remains were probably re-interred in 1866 or 1867.
Because Peirce’s comrades had buried him in a temporary grave close to where he had fallen and had marked its location, his remains could be identified when they were transferred to the cemetery.
KEEPING A PROMISE
A service was held for Peirce on June 19, 1864, in the church in Orange, Mass., where he had been the Sunday School superintendent.
His widow never remarried, and their daughter Lucy never married or had children.
Lucy’s death at 86 in 1946 would seem to bring Peirce’s story to an end, since there were no direct descendants. Instead, he has been remembered for several generations.
In the early 1880s, the Peirce family contacted Fredericksburg National Cemetery Superintendent Andrew Birdsall and sent him $100 to decorate Peirce’s grave every Memorial Day. Birdsall, a wounded Union veteran, fulfilled the family’s wish faithfully until he was transferred to another cemetery in 1892. Birdsall’s daughter, who lived in Fredericksburg, continued the tradition of placing flowers on Peirce’s grave even after her father’s death in 1897. Birdsall and his wife are both buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery, not far from Peirce’s grave.
A lengthy obituary for Andrew Birdsall was published in a Massachusetts newspaper because of his connection to the Peirce family.
It read, in part:
“On the 23rd of February the sacred dust of an honored soldier was committed to the beautiful National Cemetery in Fredericksburg, among the countless graves over which he had so tenderly and so faithfully watched in former days. His kindness was unlimited, his statements minute, photographic views were sent by him, and every Memorial Day he carefully accepted commissions for the floral decoration of the grave of Sgt. Jerome Peirce. And later, when Mrs. Peirce and her daughter visited the cemetery, Maj. Birdsall and family united in their hospitable attentions. After the government removed his services to Hampton, Virginia, his daughter has continued a kind interest in the soldier’s grave.”
Birdsall’s daughter, Florence Birdsall Heflin, who passed away in 1941, took prime responsibility for keeping her father’s promise to Jerome Peirce’s family. Florence then passed the grave-decoration duty on to her daughter, Alice Heflin, who was born in 1904 and who later married Shelton Abernathy. Alice Heflin Abernathy was the driving force in this project for many years.
THE LEGACY CONTINUES
After she passed away at 95 on Aug. 31, 1999, her obituary read:
In 1993, she received national attention as the third generation caretaker of a Civil War soldier’s grave in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Her family had decorated the grave of a Massachusetts soldier for more than a century.” After her death, her niece, Lucille Ingalls, and her children and grandchildren took over.
Fredericksburg resident Gary Ingalls, Kent’s father and Lucille’s son, has in recent years assumed responsibility for decorating the grave.
“At various times, all the family members have participated,” he said recently. “I became more involved in the 1990s, when it became difficult for my mother to make the trip. By then, it had become a real family tradition, and it was our family’s way of honoring someone who died for the cause he deeply believed in.”
For many years, the family picked flowers out of their garden to take to the cemetery, Ingalls said. After a while, the fresh flowers were replaced by silk ones, so that they could be reused.
“Before my mother passed away, she specifically and emphatically told me not to forget to decorate Jerome Peirce’s grave every Memorial Day,” Ingalls said. “If for some reason I could not do it, my son, Kent, and one of my cousins would carry on the tradition.”
Even though decorating Peirce’s grave every Memorial Day has now endured over 130 years thanks to several generations of the Birdsall family, one aspect of the tradition has not changed for as long as anyone can remember. The flowers have always been accompanied by a card that has read, “Once lost, now found, never forgotten.”