FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — The pink and blue hues of Saturday’s setting sun gave way to more than 15,300 flickers of light at Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
The luminarias on the cemetery’s terraced hill seemed to cast a blanket of silence over the hundreds of visitors that wound their way through the graves of the fallen.
Candles lit the graves of the more than 15,300 Union soldiers buried at Fredericksburg National Cemetery for the 18th Annual Memorial Luminaria, according to the National Park Service.
Not far away, 1,600 luminarias and a cemetery tour shed light on the final resting places of the soldiers buried in the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery. The United Daughters of the Confederacy placed those luminarias.
Others marked Memorial Day weekend with a different flair that included motorcycle stunt shows, a water balloon toss race and a beer-belly contest. The third annual Thunder for the Cause, a three-day series of events at the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds, served as a fitting Memorial Day event for the hundreds of motorcycle riders who converged on the site.
The contests, entertainment and adjoining campsites serve as a rallying point for the bikers who head to Washington, D.C., today to participate in the annual Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom. An estimated 900,000 participants and spectators are expected to participate in the annual ride, according to the Rolling Thunder website. Now in its 27th year, the Ride For Freedom invites motorcycle riders from across the nation to travel to D.C. on Memorial Day weekend to advocate for a full accounting of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
Whatever the event, the underlying purpose was the same: honoring military service members who made the ultimate sacrifice.
For Lukas Giese, 14, and Jonathan Crespo, 14, the sight of the thousands of luminarias at the national cemetery was rewarding. Both had joined their fellow Boy Scouts around 8 a.m. Saturday to place the thousands of luminarias at the gravesites and came back later to light them.
“It’s a good thing to do. I think it really honors them [the soldiers]. It’s the least we can do,” Giese said. “I find it breathtaking how many are buried here.”
Crespo, who has lit the luminarias five times before, said that the Scouts are often thanked by those who visit.
Counting the lighted walkways, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, American Heritage groups and other organizations placed a total of 17,000 luminarias at the national cemetery.
Each year that Heather Thitsone has come, the luminarias have had a hushing effect on the crowd, she said.
“It’s so amazing what these soldiers did for us,” Thitsone said.
The stories of Union soldiers like David Stevens, who died from being shot by a Confederate prisoner of war, were told by National Park Service staff and volunteers stationed at headstones.
Every half hour, the stories would stop and the cemetery would fall completely still. The long, slow notes of Taps would spill over the hill and the crowd would place their hands over their hearts.
At 9 p.m., taps echoed from more than just the hills of Fredericksburg National Cemetery. As part of a program called Reverberations, the song was played from 11 sites across the nation. Many parts of the Memorial Day event were also live-streamed along with similar events at other national parks, town greens, museums and cemeteries. Reverberations seeks to emphasize the rippling effect that one soldier’s death could have.
At the fairgrounds, bikers retold stories of their own.
Gary Everett, a veteran of the Air Force and local organizer of the Thunder for the Cause, started the event because there were no other biking events here, he said. He also wanted to give riders for the Rolling Thunder ride a place to stop and be entertained. All of the event’s proceeds go toward the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program.
“The majority of the American population thinks bikers are troublemakers. But they aren’t. They are your doctors, your lawyers and your veterans,” Everett said.
Bikers like Arnulfo Castillo, who is known by his nickname, Taco, said that he has made close friends with those he has met at previous Thunder for the Cause events. Most of those friends are veterans like himself. The veterans, he says, are the only people that can fully understand his military experiences.
“Me being a veteran ... it is good to meet people that can talk about the things that you can only talk about with other people who have been in the military,” Castillo said. “It [the military] is a different kind of family.”
Castillo has made the trip to D.C. for the Rolling Thunder freedom ride before, but opted out this year. He decided instead to stay in his camper alongside his friends until the end of the Thunder for the Cause events.
His friends, Michael Courtney and Joanne Davis, won many of the contests on Saturday. They also opted out of the D.C. trip to stay with friends.
“It’s a good charity. It all goes back to those who served and a great way to honor the military,” Courtney said.