As far as Mike Burns is concerned, it’s a project that may not be completed in his lifetime, but he’s going to keep doing it as long as he’s able.
Burns, a retired Marine Corps aviator, as well as a member of the Civil War Round Table of Fredericksburg, is leading a headstone upgrade effort at Fredericksburg’s Confederate Cemetery to further honor the 3,553 fallen soldiers interred there.
Burns’ efforts center on enhancing each of the cemetery’s existing 800 white Georgia marble headstones by eventually adding new granite flat stones to the base of each one of them.
“Many of the marble markers are weathered, they are worn, some are broken, some have the name misspelled, and some have the data incomplete,” said Burns. “We do our research and correct all the errors that we can find, knowing where that particular soldier lies, and get a new marker for him with the correct information.”
Burns described the symmetrical design of the Confederate burial area within the cemetery as a “Southern Cross.” He said the white marble headstones that stand in the cemetery today were installed in the 1880s. Those stones replaced the rows of wooden posts that were originally used as grave markers by locals who buried the fallen Confederate soldiers following the Civil War.
Replacing the existing vertical stones with new horizontal granite stones would change the visual appearance of the cemetery significantly, something the Ladies Memorial Association doesn’t want to happen.
“The design is historic,” said Carolyn Elstner, president of the Ladies Memorial Association. “That’s how it was originally created, with the unknowns in the center, and those known dead around them in the shape of a cross of honor. That appearance would vanish.”
To retain the 1880s look of the Confederate burial ground, the new flat stones are being placed at the base of each individual white gravestone, directly below the deceased’s inscription.
A team of volunteers from the Civil War Round Table, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy started work on Saturday, placing the latest shipment of new granite markers at gravesites. The latest shipment of stones was delivered to the cemetery Nov. 18.
The team uses a template to dig a rectangular hole which, once leveled, is then layered with tamped-down sand and pea gravel as a foundation for the new stone to rest on.
“Last year, we had 12 stones and it took three or four hours to put them in,” said Burns.
The 31 stones in the latest delivery are in addition to 40 others that have been shipped to the cemetery since the stone upgrade effort began in 2011.
At that time, the nearby Fredericksburg National Military Park was being well maintained by the federal government, while the city’s Confederate Cemetery was lagging behind. Members of the Civil War Round Table stepped up to undertake a stone upgrade project not only as a community service effort, but as a way to permanently honor those who died in surrounding battlefields over 150 years ago.
Nearly 10 years ago, the first new flat stone was placed next to the marker of Pvt. William Harris of the 1st Texas Infantry, officially kicking off the endeavor.
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs supplied the first seven granite stones to the Fredericksburg cemetery, complicated regulations, red tape and loopholes blocked further government funding for additional markers. The Civil War Round Table filed an appeal for funding reconsideration and the appeal made it to VA headquarters in June 2018, but so far, there has been no movement on the case.
“We’ve been waiting ever since to be called onto their docket,” said Burns.
To maintain progress, the new markers have been paid for with funds raised or donated by local organizations.
“They have been paid for by the Ladies Memorial Association through grants from the Duff McDuff Green Jr. Fund, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Civil War Roundtable of Fredericksburg,” said Burns. “We combine our efforts and buy them.”
Burns said the latest batch of stones was purchased through Brian Dyer, a Fredericksburg resident and president of Architectural Stone Products Inc. of Fredericksburg. According to Burns, each stone measures one by two feet and weighs about 125 pounds.
Burns said the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield chipped in for the latest batch of stones, which will mark the graves of Confederate soldiers who died at Ellwood Manor in Orange County. Other contributors were the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Ladies Memorial Association.
“The next batch will probably be ordered in the spring,” said Burns. “The number of markers will be decided based on who will chip in.”
“It’s going to take a long time and it’s going to take some fundraising,” said Elstner, who feels she has a special relationship with those interred at the cemetery.
“The Confederate Cemetery is so peaceful, sometimes I just go sit,” she continued. “I feel such a connection to those men, and it’s an honor to take care of them.”