Unusual twist in Civil War commemoration
By Maya Rao
Inquirer Staff Writer
Prominent Civil War Union Gen. George G. Meade and little-known Confederate soldier George Ashmead have been buried in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery for more than a century, but only the general has been regularly celebrated.
Yesterday, at the site of Philadelphia's first Memorial Day commemoration in 1868, a tradition of honoring Meade at the graveyard on the holiday weekend was followed by an unusual twist: a ceremony across the cemetery in remembrance of Ashmead, the son of a prominent Germantown family whose Confederate affiliation was discovered in recent months.
Local historians found that Ashmead, whose father settled in Cheltenham before the landing of William Penn, was born and raised in Philadelphia, but moved to Texas. He enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 at age 25.
He was a member of Company E of the Fourth Texas Infantry. His two brothers, who stayed in the North, joined the Union army.
Ashmead appears in historical records as a prisoner of war in Point Lookout, Md., and his brother Thomas was held as a Union prisoner of war in Texas during the second half of 1864, said Betty Mastin, a member of the local chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy.
George Ashmead died in 1898.
Historians learned about the burial of the Confederate soldier in the cemetery when they stumbled across his obituary at a local historical society.
Mastin, in a prayer at Ashmead's grave, said the Confederates emerged from the war with "our battered shields as a patriotic people."
The ceremony honoring Ashmead was sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, joined by United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Dozens of people who attended the Confederate event also gathered for a resumption of the decade-long tradition of honoring Meade, an event organized by the General Meade Society.
Meade led the Union victory in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, a major turning point in the war.
Standing before the general's grave, Anthony Waskie, the society's president and a Temple University professor, praised Meade's bravery and humility. Waskie cited an instance at an Independence Hall reception in Meade's honor in which the general asked that praise go not to him, but to the soldiers of his army.
Trumpets sounded at the gravesite. Women in Civil War-era dresses, hats, and gloves scattered flower petals and presented wreaths. Seven uniformed men fired three shots from their rifles. A procession then wound through the cemetery to a section of graves of men who had been members of the Grand Army of the Republic, Post 1.
"The vast majority of people here are interested in American history, and they're dedicated to the traditional view of honoring the fallen," Waskie said after the events. "Memorial Day means remembrance; we do not want to let . . . sacrifices of the past slip into oblivion."