Two girls paused in front of a tombstone at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery as their classmates planted flags in front of other graves.
A pale-green lichen, a sort of fungus, was growing on a granite marker, and sixth-grader Madeline Leonard told Leah Werme that she wanted it gone.
“I was scraping it off so you could see his name,” Madeline said, adding that the soldier buried there deserved at least that much.
When Kirsten Talken–Spaulding walked by and heard the story, she was noticeably moved. She’s the National Park Service’s new superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
That morning, Talken–Spaulding had been thinking about her father, Navy pilot George Talken, who died in Vietnam when she was a child. She was comforted, knowing someone would be placing a flag on his grave at Arlington Cemetery.
The notion of a preteen showing the same compassion for a Civil War soldier moved her to tears.
“These kids probably have no concept of who these men were or what their lives were like, yet they have a strong sense of caring,” she said. “You can’t teach that.”
There were plenty of teachable moments Friday morning on the rolling grounds of the Fredericksburg cemetery, where flags rippled in a balmy breeze as soon as they were placed.
About 40 sixth-graders from Fredericksburg Christian School volunteered for the duty on the terraced hills where 15,300 Civil War soldiers are buried.
They accomplished their mission in less than an hour.
The students are among a larger group of volunteers who work behind the scenes on one of Fredericksburg’s showcase events: the annual luminaria display.
Today, Boy Scouts from the Mattaponi and Aquia districts and members of the Commonwealth Council Girl Scouts will place paper bags, filled with sand and candles, next to the flags and light the candles at dusk.
Starting at 8 p.m., visitors can walk among the glowing, somber scene as buglers play taps and park rangers tell life stories of the dead.
“There’s no way we could begin to do this without all these extra sets of hands,” said Ranger Peter Maugle.
So, as sixth-graders chose to spend their last day of school at a cemetery, Maugle stressed the importance of remembering those who served their nation.
“If you fought in a war and went through all the things soldiers do,” he said, “wouldn’t you want someone to remember you, to remember the sacrifices you made?”
Luke Smith did.
The eighth-grader asked to come along—even though many boys his age consider themselves light years ahead of mere sixth-graders.
Luke’s older brother, William, is a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and his father, Michael, is in the Army.
“I’ve always thought of this as something we should do,” he said. “It’s great that these kids actually came out today. I came because I have a connection to the military, but a lot of these kids don’t.”
Some students, like Ethan Williams, worked alone. He tucked flags under both arms as he walked down a row of graves, meticulously unfurling the stars and stripes.
Others worked in groups or with adult chaperones, including history teacher and event coordinator Joy Hopper.
Fredericksburg Christian has sent students to the cemetery on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend for at least 15 years, she said.
Hopper used to give extra credit for the assignment, but this year sought volunteers who “want to do it because it’s the honorable thing to do.”
Madeline wasn’t the only student who took pride in her work. When Emily Freel got a faded flag, she opted for a better one instead.
“I want it to look perfect,” she said.
Joshua Irwin had his mother, Judy, and 3-year-old brother, Richard, with him. At each grave, the same scenario played out: Mom handed out a flag, and Joshua tried to gently boot his brother away from the stone so he could plant his flag. The toddler’s way of “helping” was to plop himself on each marker.
Joshua’s parents, Judy and Richard, both served in Iraq, and a family ancestor fought in the Civil War. As a result, the long-ago dates and places didn’t seem so foreign to Joshua.
“It’s kind of fantastic for him,” his mother said, “to start learning that he’s actually a piece of all this.”