LEESBURG, Va. — What better way to symbolize a life than with a green, growing tree that will outlive us all?
In this case, we're talking about 620,000 trees--one for every soldier, South and North, who died during the most tragic time in American history.
That simple but ambitious idea to honor the Civil War dead is taking root this week as Oatlands, an 1803 plantation near the Loudoun-Prince William county line.
The 360-acre Piedmont farm is the first place to host the Journey Through Hallowed Ground's Living Legacy Project, which could create the longest landscaped allee in the world.
The plan calls for the project to stretch along the Journey's 180-mile National Scenic Byway, which runs from Gettysburg, Pa., to Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson's home near Charlottesville. It's no coincidence that the corridor, along U.S. 15, has the greatest concentration of Civil War battlefields in the country.
The project's pilot phase, launched Tuesday, will plant or dedicate more than 400 trees at Oatlands.
"I think this is one of the most beautiful and inspiring ideas that I've ever seen," Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told those gathered at Oatlands for the inaugural planting.
"This wonderful project is all about place and protecting place but, more importantly for the future, about engaging people in this place, asking them to experience it and to love it, and to contribute to its protection by visiting it and investing in it."
State Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, the other keynote speaker, urged Virginians to do everything they can to to support the project and "get those trees planted."
It can generate tourism, promote the state's history and advance people's understanding of epic events, much as Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" movie is doing in theaters now, he said.
"It's so imperative that we remember the sacrifices that these soldiers made to to create this country," Connaughton said, pointing out that more men died in the Civil War than all of America's other wars combined. He also noted that it was Lincoln who, in 1863, established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
The transportation secretary read Lincoln's proclamation imploring Americans to ask God to "commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation."
The Rev. Brown W. Morton III of Waterford, a retired University of Mary Washington professor, offered a blessing before the group dedicated the first tree, a 15-foot red October Glory maple, in a pasture near the Oatlands entrance. Col. Meg Roosma of the West Point Alumni Glee Club sang "Amazing Grace."
A brass disc, hung from the trunk, paired Tree A-0001 with an unknown soldier. (About half the war's dead are anonymous.)
By week's end, that tree will join other saplings in a copse showcasing the project's signature palette--redbuds, scarlet oaks, red maples and red cedars. Representing the valor of the fallen, the native trees will remind visitors they tread on hallowed ground.
Rhodeside & Harwell, a landscape architecture firm based in Alexandria, won a national competition to create the design. Organizers didn't want to erect another bronze or stone monument to the dead, but to create a living memorial that shares soldiers' individual stories with generations to come.
Donors can choose a particular soldier to honor, as the trees will be geo-tagged to enable smartphone users to learn about the life of each warrior, whether they were Union, Confederate or U.S. Colored Troops.
"These men were fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, sweethearts," said Cate Magennis Wyatt, the Journey's founder and president.
Board Chairman Michael J. O'Connor said Oatlands, one of two National Trust for Historic Preservation properties in the JTHG corridor, is proud to be the first spot to host the project to honor "the sacrifice of those who have gone before us."
The effort will improve air quality, create wildlife habitat, reduce mankind's carbon footprint, provide shade for visitors and enhance the farm's beauty, O'Connor said. Oatlands, sitting at the byway's geographical center, boasts magnificent specimen trees and the oldest greenhouse in the South.
"The return on investment is that these trees will be here for our children and our children's children," he said.
The project's pilot phase will extend six miles south to Gilbert's Corner at U.S. 15 and U.S. 50. It involves planting 3,312 trees and dedicating another 269.
The Journey, a nonprofit, four-state partnership recognized by Congress as a National Heritage Area, provides heritage tourism and educational programs and manages the byway. It includes nine presidential homes, 13 national parks and 30 Historic Main Street communities.