Despite the money worries and social distancing created by the coronavirus pandemic, Wreaths Across Chattanooga will take place next month at Chattanooga National Cemetery, according to local organizers.
The commitment comes after Wreaths Across America announced earlier this month that a similar wreath-laying remembrance would be canceled at Arlington National Cemetery due to coronavirus safety concerns, a decision reversed by Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy.
"I have directed Arlington National Cemetery to safely host Wreaths Across America," McCarthy wrote on Twitter. "We appreciate the families and visitors who take time to honor and remember those who are laid to rest at our nation's most hallowed ground."
President Donald Trump later tweeted that he had "reversed the ridiculous decision to cancel" the program.
Mickey McCamish, chairman of Wreaths Across Chattanooga, said his group has been meeting monthly to tweak plans for the local commemoration, which normally draws public officials for a brief ceremony and thousands of volunteers to place the wreaths.
Wreaths Across America coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at more than 2,100 locations across the United States, at sea and abroad, according to its website. McCamish said Wreaths Across Chattanooga is set up as its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and would have gone ahead with its plans regardless of the national decision. However, the formal ceremony has been canceled and the legion of volunteers has been limited to 50.
Donations for wreaths, which cost $10 each, are being accepted through Monday. Wreaths will be placed on Dec. 19. They may be designated for grave-specific or general placement.
* Wreaths Across Chattanooga is accepting donations through Monday for placement of holiday wreaths at Chattanooga National Cemetery. Cost is $10. They may be designated as general remembrance, to be placed by volunteers with the organization, or grave-specific, which may be placed at a particular hero’s grave by the organization or by friends or family at a predetermined time. Learn more at chattanoogawaa.com.
McCamish said he worried that funds might be tighter for donors this year, but he believes they will be close to last year's total, which was enough to lay a wreath at more than a quarter of the almost 48,000 grave sites for the holiday season.
"Last year, we had a record," McCamish said. "Last year, we were just slightly under 13,500 wreaths."
Among the biggest donors is the Hamilton County Republican Women's Club. President Patsy Henry said her 171-member group has raised $10,000 in donations, enough to purchase 1,000 wreaths, mostly through casual but coordinated requests.
"We've gone into churches, Ace Hardwares, funeral homes, the florist we use, businesses all over Chattanooga," she said. "We'd say, 'Hey, do you want to buy a wreath?' and they automatically said, 'Yes, oh yes.' It was easy. It really was."
Often, someone who donates $10 for a friend or family member buried at the historic cemetery will kick in additional funds to place more wreaths, McCamish said.
"They'll purchase one wreath for a grave for a specific person, and then say, 'Here's $40 to put on four more graves that [the organization] can choose,'" he said.
Chattanooga National Cemetery opened in 1867 to commemorate the lives lost in the Civil War's Battles for Chattanooga, fought Nov. 23-27, 1863. Now at 121 acres, it has 47,983 grave sites and contains the remains of 60,494 people, said administrative officer William Sachse, explaining that spouses and sometimes minor children may share a veteran's burial plot.
After members of Wreaths Across Chattanooga tally donations to see how many wreaths they can buy, they will choose adjacent sections of the cemetery for placement of the general-remembrance wreaths for maximum visual impact. U.S. Xpress and Covenant Transport will retrieve the wreaths from Maine about a week before they are placed, McCamish said.
His goal, he said, is to someday "get every grave site covered."
"This is not the year because of the pandemic," he said, "but I think we will get there eventually."
Email Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org.