LEESBURG, Va. — On a busy stretch of suburban highway an hour's drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line, workers are digging holes in a grass median, then carefully planting thin, delicate trees: oak, maple, cedar and dogwood — 108 in all — before winter sets in.
The planting looks like a typical highway beautification, but it's part of a quiet effort that seeks to answer a very big question: 150 years after the end of the Civil War, can trees heal the nation's soul?
An estimated 620,000 soldiers died fighting from 1861 to 1865, far more than in any war Americans have fought since. Yet for all the intensity surrounding the war's 150th anniversary, almost no one — including most historians — can say for sure exactly how many died, or who nearly half of the dead were. Many soldiers, especially those who fought for the South, never received a proper burial.
Along the historic highway that stretches from Thomas Jefferson's home, near Charlottesville, Va., to the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., a small group has spent the past two years literally laying the groundwork to plant a tree for every one of the dead.
When completed, the $65 million project will be the largest man-made pathway of trees on the globe, stretching 180 miles north to south over three states.
Its scale brings home the war's grim reality: So many men died in those four years that if workers simply planted along both sides of the route, each tree would stand just three feet from the next.
So organizers are asking communities along the route to devote small swaths of land to creating groves. They've already planted 248 trees at Bliss Orchard at Gettysburg, part of a larger effort by the National Park Service to restore the battlefield site to what it looked like in 1863.
Cate Magennis Wyatt, a former Virginia secretary of commerce who heads the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, a well-funded public-private effort that has already turned the route into a "scenic byway," says the idea for trees was not a hard sell for communities along the route. They had been asked by state officials to come up with a way to commemorate the war's 150th anniversary.
"They called me and said, 'Cate, we don't want another flagpole. We don't need another monument. What can we do together that's bigger than what any one of us could do individually?' "
Wyatt suggested planting an allée, or alley, of trees — she knew that Australians had created one after World War I — and soon people all along the route were asking how they could help.
"Tree people love this," says Virginia arborist Peter Hart, who has championed the project.
At an arborists' conference recently, Hart manned a table publicizing the effort and says it was "constantly crowded" with tree experts wanting to know more and many forking over the $100 it costs to donate a tree. As he explained the effort, he says, a few even teared up as they absorbed its magnitude.
"They're excited about this," says Hart, who laid out $200 to plant trees for two great-grandfathers who fought in the war and survived.
After 150 years, the Civil War remains unprecedented in the USA in its carnage. Historians estimate that one in three households in the South lost a family member and that overall about 2% of the USA population died in the line of duty. Today that would be the equivalent of more than 6 million dead, or 4,100 per day, every day, for four years.
Some estimates put the war's death toll as high as 740,000, but poorly kept records, especially for Confederate soldiers, mean that historians likely will never know its full extent. Should historians confirm the higher count, Wyatt says, "We're prepared to go there if we need to."
Using GPS technology, the group is working with the National Park Service and other partners, including the online sites ancestry.com and fold3.com, to create an interactive map that will allow anyone traveling the route to find a tree planted for an individual soldier. Wyatt foresees that travelers someday will be able to pinpoint individual trees using a smartphone, then use an app to call up each soldier's information.
Within just a few years, she predicts, the stands of trees — red sunset maples, chestnut and willow oaks, red-twigged dogwoods, red cedars and eastern redbuds, among others — will soon be "impossible not to recognize."
As workers finished digging holes along the highway one cold morning this week, Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd said the city plans to contribute at least 500 trees. The effort, she says, has become "part of the lexicon of planting" in Leesburg.
"It's ongoing," Umstattd says. "I expect it to last for a generation or more."
Those looking to donate a tree can do so online at the the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership's website.