History, Memory, Trees: A Civil War Reflection at Oatlands

Posted on: November 30th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

Written by Katherine Malone-France, Historic Sites


Planting the first tree, from left: Sean Connaughton, Virginia Secretary of Transportation; Stephanie Meeks, National Trust president; Cate Magennis Wyatt, Journey Through Hallowed Ground founder and president; Michael O'Connor, Oatlands, Inc. board chairman; Col. Meg Roosma, West Point Alumni Glee Club and Andrea McGimsey, Oatlands executive director.

We are here today because we know there is healing power in re-planting after a bitter harvest. -- Rev. W. Morton Brown III

With that invocation, Oatlands, a Historic Site of the National Trust in Leesburg, Virginia, became home to the first of 620,000 trees -- one for every soldier who died during the Civil War -- to be planted along a transportation corridor stretching from Monticello to Gettysburg.

This effort, known as the Living Legacy Program, offered an opportunity for Oatlands, Inc., to combine its leadership in environmental sustainability with its continuing interpretation of a complex and compelling history. Eventually, 400 trees will be planted or dedicated at Oatlands, enhancing an already significant collection of historic trees. The trees will also be geo-tagged to allow smartphone users to learn the story of the soldier represented by each tree.

The Living Legacy Program is sponsored by The Journey Through Hallowed Ground (TJTHG), a non-profit, four-state partnership dedicated to preserving American heritage in a National Heritage Area extending from Gettysburg, PA through Maryland and Harpers Ferry, WV to Monticello in Albemarle County, VA.

At Oatlands, the trees planted last week added another dimension to a landscape already layered with the history of the 19th century. Established in 1798, the property became known as Oatlands in the early 19th century as its owner, George Carter, began to grow a variety of small grains on approximately 3,400 acres.

Operation of the plantation and the creation of its defining features -- including a mansion that blends the Federal and Greek Revival styles, beautiful terraced gardens, and the remarkable Carter Barn -- were dependent on the labor and talents of people who were enslaved on the property. As the Civil War approached, Oatlands was home to not only George Carter and his family, but also 128 enslaved men, women, and children, constituting the largest population of slaves held in Loudoun County at the time.

In his invocation at the Living Legacy dedication, the Reverend W. Morton Brown III reminded us that the Civil War continues to haunt our collective memory. We struggle to try to make sense of this conflict -- to forgive its horrors, celebrate its nobilities, and comprehend its enduring consequences.

The Historic Sites of the National Trust play an essential role in this effort by offering dynamic programming that seeks to tell a range of stories from the Civil War era. And we do so with the profound force of authenticity that exists only at consciously and carefully preserved historic places.

As Stephanie Meeks asserted in her remarks at Oatlands last week, the power of place is not confined to one moment but stretches across many moments, years, and even centuries to inspire us, to strengthen us, and perhaps even to heal us.


The first tree planted at Oatlands was dedicated to an unknown soldier.

In addition to last week’s event at Oatlands, the Historic Sites of the National Trust are commemorating the Civil War in a variety of ways during the conflict’s sesquicentennial anniversary:

  • In October, Belle Grove participated in the re-enactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek by hosting re-enactors portraying life on the homefront and exhibitions of Civil War artifacts.
  • The Museum of African American History in Boston has reached beyond the African Meeting House to offer readings of important abolitionist documents in historic homes around its Beacon Hill neighborhood where they were originally authored and read.
  • In addition to having the Emancipation Proclamation on view in its Visitor Center, President Lincoln’s Cottage recently collaborated with the DC Native Community Round Dance Planning Committee to present A Weekend of Reflection and Remembrance in honor of the 150th anniversary of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, a conflict inexorably bound to the Civil War.
  • At the Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana, local students participating in the annual Civil War School Days experience life on the homefront for the women and children -- free and enslaved -- who lived on the property while Union troops were encamped there.
  • In the Paths to Freedom program at Decatur House, elementary school students study the institution of urban slavery through the property’s architecture and portray individuals involved the political machinations surrounding the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

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3 Responses

  1. Cathy Clark

    December 20, 2012

    My great-great-grandfather died in the Civil War. I’d like to learn more about how information will be available to locate a tree planted for a family member. Will there be a website created, with searchable options, to locate family members? Thank you for this program and for promoting it in the National Trust.

    Board member of Waterville Tree Board, Waterville, WA, Tree City USA

  2. Susan Hall

    December 20, 2012

    What a fascinating idea! Honoring civil war dead and using mother nature to do it, plus high tech. Where tradition meets today!

  3. Denise Harris

    December 20, 2012

    The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership is honored that Oatlands and the National Trust launched the pilot of the Living Legacy Tree Project! We are dedicating this memorial of national significance to ensure the fallen are remembered for generations to come. Everyone with interest in the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice is invited to help us tell their individual stories by donating a tree. Plus, all donations received by the end of the year will be matched 2 for 1 by a generous anonymous donor. If you would like to learn more, please visit the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership website at http://www.HallowedGround.org.