This past Saturday I had the honor of participating for a third time in the annual Memorial Luminaria in the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. This event has become not only a highlight of my job as a seasonal historical interpreter at the park, but of my entire year. For someone who is afraid of the dark, and not so fond of cemeteries, the first year was a bit of a struggle. But as night fell and the glow of 15,300 candles became prominent, the beauty of the night and the event washed away any fears I had. Since my first year, I have fallen in love with the Luminaria, the cemetery, and the men who are buried there. The cemetery has become my favorite spot in the park and I often encourage visitors to check it out during their visit.
The cemetery took on even more meaning for me last summer when I began the process of revising the Luminaria program. After participating in the program for two years I felt that the script focused too much on monuments and major features, and not enough on the soldiers themselves. It is, after all, a Memorial Day program, the veterans should be the focus. Because we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial of 1862, I wanted to highlight the stories from that year with the intent to do the same for the remaining years of the anniversary. So under the supervision of a friend and colleague at the park, I set about researching the burials and developing a new script for this year’s event. Consequently, many of the words read by staff and volunteers on Saturday were my own. Researching the cemetery has not only served the park, it has also helped me connect personally to the stories I share every day and made me far more comfortable with the cemetery (aka: facing my fears).
Saturday could not have been more perfect. The night was perfectly clear, the temperature was comfortable, and a slight breeze set the candles flickering as darkness fell. As the mournful notes of Taps floated over the graves to start the event, I found myself tearing up. All through the cemetery clear voices told the stories of men who had sacrificed their all on behalf of our nation. The night was made even more special by a last minute addition to the tour. Three descendants of a soldier buried in the cemetery arrived at Fredericksburg on Saturday, and they ended up telling the story of their family to crowds of amazed and appreciative listeners. Three hours later, Taps played one last time to close the program, and once again I found tears in my eyes. The emotion came of course from the beauty and sentiment of the event; the notes floating over thousands upon thousands of lit candles and the many visitors who still remained to pay tribute to the fallen. But they also came from pride, pride that I had been a part of creating this special evening. The 15,300 Union soldiers and various other military burials resting on that hill are the very reason our park exists, they are the reason visitors know the names Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, theirs are the stories we tell every day when we go to work. It is my belief that if one’s story is remembered, then you will never die for your memory survives. Over the last year of research I have become familiar with these men, their stories, their families. It felt wonderful to share them with the public and ensure, on one beautiful and touching night, that they lived on.
Kathleen Logothetis graduated in May 2012 with an M.A. in History from West Virginia University. Her thesis, “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army,” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. After a third summer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, she will be continuing at West Virginia University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in History. Her research interests include the Civil War and American Revolution, military history/soldier experience, and commemoration/memory/monuments. ©