Sunday, November 8, 2009

Candlelight ceremony honors veterans

DINWIDDIE - Among the more than 6,100 graves in Poplar Grove National Cemetery is that of William Montgomery, a member of the 155th Pennsylvania who holds the regrettable distinction of being the last enlisted man killed in Virginia in the Civil War. Much more regrettably, he was far from being the last American to fall in the service of his country.

On Saturday night, National Park Service rangers, volunteers and area residents lit candles on Montgomery's final resting place and all the others at Poplar Grove in tribute to those soldiers and all the other men and women who have served in the nation's Armed Forces.

The fourth annual lighting of luminaries at Poplar Grove in commemoration of Veterans Day drew dozens of volunteers, including Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, to place a white paper bag containing a candle on each grave marker at the 143-year-old cemetery off Vaughan Road.

As twilight fell, the soft glow of the candles emerged in long, neat, curving lines stretching across the grounds, in a solemn act of rekindling of memory and reawakening of gratitude for the nation's defenders.

The names of more than 4,000 of the soldiers interred at Poplar Grove are unknown, but visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield visitor center recently were offered the opportunity to write names on the bags used for the ceremony, personal tributes to their ancestors or loved ones who served, or are serving, in the military.

As a result, there were reminders of every war America has fought, from "John Lumsden, Virginia Militia, Revolutionary War" to "Cpl. Ben Kopp, Army Ranger, died from wounds in Afghanistan, donated his organs so others could live, True American Hero."

And this testimony to new tragedy closer to home: "Pvt. Francheska Velez, Ft. Hood, TX, 5 Nov. 09. Love, Papo."

At William Montgomery's grave, Park Ranger Tyler Wilson stood in torchlight wearing the flamboyant Zouave uniform of the 155th Pennsylvania as he told visitors the details of Montgomery's death: Near Appomattox Court House, he "received a mortal wound from shrapnel from a Confederate battery that was retreating" on the very day Lee surrendered to Grant.

Other rangers explained how fallen soldiers' bodies were collected for interment during the Civil War, and why so many of those buried at Poplar Grave are unknown, and that among the graves there are more than 300 soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, the first African-Americans to serve officially in the nation's military.

Sutherland resident and admitted Civil War buff Robert Whiting and his wife, Nita, were among those who walked between the rows of softly burning lights and listened to the rangers' presentations. He said he had been to Poplar Grove before, in 2003 when three soldiers' bodies that had been discovered by relic hunters were reburied there with full military honors.

Poplar Grove was established as a resting place for the Union dead, and Whiting noted that he had ancestors or relatives who fought on both sides during the Civil War. "This is a very sacred place," he said.

- Michael Buettner may be reached at 722-5155 or

No comments: