A wood to remember

Our view: As Civil War anniversary approaches, what better way to honor the dead than create a living memorial?

May 05, 2010

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked a military installation at Fort Sumter, an event that is generally regarded as the beginning of the Civil War. As the nation prepares to mark the sesquicentennial of that conflict, it's entirely fitting that Marylanders find some way to reflect upon that momentous time and honor those who died in the line of duty.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell demonstrated last month how not to handle the task when he signed a proclamation for "Confederate History Month" that failed to make mention of slavery. He later apologized, but the episode demonstrated the sensitivities the war can muster 150 years after the fact — and perhaps the pitfalls of a one-sided, parochial view of the conflict.

It would also be a mistake for such a solemn and important commemoration to be relegated to mere proclamations, plaques or markers. The public is rarely stirred by the addition of a flagpole or lump of granite, and politicians have failed to better the words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address all these years later.

Fortunately, a nonprofit group that promotes and markets the history-packed corridor of Civil War battlefields and other notable sites between Gettysburg and Charlottesville, Va., is offering what could prove a worthy alternative: Plant 620,000 trees, one for each soldier who died in the war, along the 180-mile, three-state stretch of U.S. Route 15.

That would include Maryland's Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, home to the war's bloodiest day, and would travel through or near battlefields in Gettysburg, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, Cool Spring and Chancellorsville.

While still early in the planning phase, the legacy project is expected to cost about $65 million, with the money coming from private and corporate donations. As initially envisioned by officials with Virginia-based The Journey Though Hallowed Ground Partnership, the trees would be planted an equal distance apart along both sides of the highway in the classic allee style.

The organization is not yet ready to collect money for the project. Organizers are still researching such basic issues as what varieties to plant (maples, chestnuts, dogwoods and redbuds are among the contenders) and how to deal with the multitude of engineering and maintenance challenges with state highway agencies and private landowners. Cate Magennis Wyatt, the group's president, says if all goes well she hopes to start the planting as early as the summer of 2011.

It will take decades for the planted seedlings to mature, of course, but by the time the Civil War's bicentennial comes around, one can imagine those stately trees lined like soldiers ready for inspection. Motorists will have a new measure of the enormity of this nation's loss in the Civil War as they drive down the highway.

Planting trees offers other benefits as well. The project can also serve as a reminder of the environmental benefits of trees that remove carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air. The addition of 620,000 more is the equivalent of creating about 885 acres of new forest.

Many of the individual Civil War battlefields along the historic Route 15 corridor have been declared endangered in recent years, potential victims of encroaching suburban sprawl. Such a massive tree-planting project would not only pay tribute to the dead but help bring history alive for generations of visitors to come.

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