Brian Smith, right, and his son Dane consult as volunteers help clean up part of a Civil War camp site where soldiers from Alabama are buried. The work is part of the project Dane Smith embarked upon to earn Eagle Scout status. (The Birmingham News/Mary Orndorff)
Published: Thursday, December 29, 2011
BRISTOW, Va. -- About an hour west of Washington, D.C., on a scrubby plot of land overrun by pricker bushes and in the shadow of dense modern townhouse developments, an Alabama cemetery was born.
Civil War preservationists with no personal links to Alabama admit to muttering a "Roll Tide" or two as they walked across the newly cleared land, the final resting place of between 75 and 90 soldiers with the Tenth Alabama Infantry Regiment.
Historical documents and archeological study pinpointed the burial grounds, a desperate place in the late summer of 1861, when rampant disease claimed up to five or six Confederate soldiers a day at what was known as Camp Jones.
There are other signs. The area is devoid of stones, except for five large rocks dug deeply into the dirt, each cut on at least one side by a man-made tool. And the area is pockmarked by man-sized depressions, not in rows, but haphazardly, as if soldiers were buried right where they died.
That level of detail, however, was unknown until Dec. 3, when a crew of about 40 volunteers, led by a 16-year-old Eagle Scout candidate, descended with chain saws and strong arms and gave sunlight and a defined boundary to the cemetery.
"It's one of the better Eagle Scout projects I've seen," said Rob Orrison, site manager with the Prince William County Department of Public Works Historic Preservation Division. "I was blown away by the number of people that came out."
The Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park is a new, lesser-known addition to an area rich with Civil War historical sites; Manassas National Battlefield Park is about three miles away as the crow flies.
The Bristoe Station park opened in 2007 after a developer, Prince William County officials and the Civil War Preservation Trust reached a compromise. The massive farm property is to be developed for residential and office space, save for a 133-acre passive park marking the Battle of Kettle Run in 1862 and the Battle of Bristoe Station in 1863.
The private owner who sold the land to the developer had farmed for decades around the unmarked cemetery, indicating he knew its historic value. But it was overgrown and inaccessible. So when Dane Smith of nearby Nokesville called up looking for an Eagle Scout project, park officials recommended clearing the cemetery.
Smith's father, Brian, recalls hearing the details about the project.
"When I heard it was an Alabama regiment, I was like, 'Great, I work for an Alabama bank,'" Brian Smith said on his second straight chilly December Saturday at the site. He is the lead Washington lobbyist for Regions Financial Corp.
The volunteers, under Dane Smith's direction, cleared the underbrush, cut down trees, put up a split-rail fence and built a bridge over a creek. Their work was approved by Orrison, who told them which trees to remove and how not to disturb the ground. Tree stumps were left intact. The stone grave markers -- three of which Orrison knew were there plus two others uncovered during the work -- were marked with bright pink tape. The park had earlier used radar to detect the disturbed dirt of the gravesites so they could estimate a cemetery boundary.
Soldiers marching by a nearby road in 1862 wrote of the row of cedar trees leading toward a clearing with wooden grave markers engraved with the names of the dead. Several years later, someone else wrote that the markers were in stone.
"Who knows when they were changed?" Orrison said.
Old pictures indicate that some of the stones were engraved, but they are missing.
Eventually, mulch will be placed on the path to the cemetery, and Orrison wants to raise the money to pay for a memorial plaque at the entrance, listing names of the 40 or so soldiers known to be buried there. He's hoping to have that work done in time for a September dedication ceremony. The gravesites will be mapped and the site open to tourists.
Park officials hope that by registering the cemetery, genealogists and historians will help them fill in the blanks of who else might be buried there, and descendants will visit their ancestors.
"It is a little sad that we won't be able to tell them exactly where they are," Orrison said.
The Tenth Alabama Infantry Regiment included companies from Jefferson, Shelby, Calhoun, Talladega, St. Clair, Calhoun, DeKalb and Talladega counties, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
A second overgrown plot across the pasture is believed to be where Mississippi soldiers are buried.
email Mary Orndorff at firstname.lastname@example.org.