Confederate Cemetery Preserves Memories of the Fallen

By Linda Wheeler
Thursday, January 11, 2007

That indefinable something that draws people to cemeteries, particularly to Civil War cemeteries, may never be articulated, but Ben Ritter gave it a try.

"These are the men who actually fought," said Ritter, speaking of Confederate soldiers buried in Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester. "I can be with them here, near them. I find it kind of peaceful."

The place that Ritter finds peaceful is a military cemetery established by civilians at the end of the war. The 5.5-acre plot, now contained within Mount Hebron Cemetery, represents the work of a women’s group that did the seemingly impossible in the months after the war. Its members raised $14,000 to buy the land, moved 2,494 bodies from surrounding battlefields and private cemeteries, and dedicated the grounds on Oct. 25, 1866.

Those men were not native sons sent home for burial but rather strangers who had died in the battles of Winchester, Kernstown, Cedar Creek and Cool Spring, defending the town and the surrounding area. They are buried according to their home states, in sections labeled Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. There were hundreds whose names were unknown, and they were buried in a mass grave at the center of Stonewall.

A memorial there reads: "Who They Were, None Know; What They Were, All Know."

This is one of a number of Confederate cemeteries in the country. In Virginia, there are much larger ones at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, but Stonewall is small enough to feel intimate.

Among the many simple marble stones is an impressive memorial to one of the most revered Confederate officers, Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby of Fauquier County, known as the "Black Knight of the Confederacy." Ashby, who was an accomplished horseman, quickly rose through the ranks to command the Ashby Brigade under Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Outside Harrisonburg on June 6, 1862, Ashby’s horse was killed under him, and he led the charge on foot. He was shot through the heart and died instantly.

Jackson, in mourning Ashby, said, "as a partisan officer I never knew his superior."

Ashby shares a grave with his brother Richard, who was killed by a Union patrol a year earlier at Harpers Ferry. Both bodies were moved to Stonewall Cemetery at its dedication. The granite stone memorial reads, "The Brothers Ashby."

Confederate Memorial Day is observed at the cemetery every June 6, the date on which Turner Ashby died.

The cemetery has evolved over the years. The Ladies Memorial Association pushed each state represented at Stonewall to erect a state memorial. The committee raised the funds for two memorial shafts, one for the unknown and the other for the Virginia section, dedicating both on June 6, 1879.

Other states followed: South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.

The work begun by the association is carried on today by Turner Ashby Chapter No. 54, United Daughters of the Confederacy. The chapter maintains the tombstones and conducts the annual Confederate Memorial Day program.

Across the street is another military cemetery, this one also dedicated in 1866, but it honors Union soldiers who died in the Winchester area. The Winchester National Cemetery contains the graves of veterans from other wars as well.

Ritter, a retired transportation analyst, knows Stonewall well. In 1962, he and Lucy Fitzhugh Kurtz prepared the first and only roster of the soldiers buried there. It was reprinted in 1984 and is still available.

He’s not sure now how he became involved in the project, but he recalls Kurtz’s telling him that she wanted it to be completed before she died, and she was 85 at the time.

"She had a typed list, one that had been copied from other lists, and there were lots of typos," Ritter said. "We wanted to match it against the actual tombstones. Miss Lucy brought a folding chair out to the cemetery, and she held her list while I read the tombstone to her. She was hard of hearing, so mostly we were yelling back and forth."

They used regimental histories as a cross-check and produced their final roster.

Ritter says the roster needs to be updated and corrected. There are now resources available that he and Kurtz did not have at their disposal, such as the Confederate records at the National Archives. Ritter is not sure that he is up to doing all the extra research, but he knows it needs to be done. And then, he’d have to find a publisher.

Meanwhile, he is busy indexing local newspaper files for the war years and occasionally showing visitors around the cemetery.

Although the numbers attending the annual Confederate Memorial Day ceremony has slipped from 20,000 when war veterans were still alive to march in the parade to about 100 people in recent years, Ritter is not deterred by what may seem a lack of public interest in the cemetery and its mission.

"I know, as long as I am alive, I will be there every June 6th," he said.

This year’s program will begin at 7 p.m.

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