A battlefield is a place of old wounds and, as such, is often found filled with post-war architectural scabs, attempts at healing and commemoration through stonework and friezes. Gettysburg is no exception. While many monuments on the field use martial imagery to tell a unit’s story of sacrifice and tenacity under fire—soldiers standing unbowed before the enemy, or obelisks and classical domes inscribed with the all the trappings of war from crossed swords to war drums—relatively few monuments make use of restorative imagery.
One notable exception is located on Oak Ridge and is known as the “Granit Tree” of the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Intriguingly, the monument is in the form of a shattered-yet-standing oak, splintered by a round shot that is visibly lodged in its crown. It is bedecked with metalwork depicting ivy streamers, and a soldier’s pack and rifle hang from one of the tree’s lower juts. A plaque shaped as a shield tells the reader, briefly, which unit was here and how many men they lost. Other than the brilliantly unorthodox use of a battle-scarred tree to symbolize the regiment standing tall although terribly damaged, what catches visitors’ eyes more than anything is a dove and her chicks, still perched in the bough of the tree despite the cannon fire.
At the monument’s dedication speech on 3 September 1888, Brevet Colonel A. J. Sellers made it very clear what the unorthodox monument’s intent was. He addressed his fellow veterans, noting that “age, disease, and death are fast thinning our ranks. Our active service will soon be only glorious memories for the inspiration of others.” (1) Sellers thought the actions of his unit glorious because they had suffered casualties “equal to forty-eight percent” (2) to prevent “a dismembered republic, slavery still in existence, and woe and humiliation beyond conjecture.” (3) Sellers wondered, though, ”who shall tell of the unknown heroes who have fallen, unmarked, un-honored and unsung?“ (4) Without a monument by which future generations could tangibly remember their story, Sellers and the men of the 90th feared a future in which they might simply be forgotten.
Perhaps they also realized that to safeguard their deeds, their monument would need to not just remind future generations of the blood spilt, but of the reason for the bloodshed. There would need to be a way to depict the world of the observer as a world that the men of the 90th fought to create. As Sellers put it, “The war is over! The dove, which brought the glad tidings of a regenerated world, here is used to symbolize the era of peace and good will between man and man.” (5) The symbolism was indeed effective; observers of this unique monument on Oak Ridge are left with the impression that the men of the 90th Pennsylvania stood as steadfastly as a tree in the heat of battle, so that one day the dove of peace would have a home to which to return.
1. E. K. Meyers, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Vol. 1, (Harrisburg, PA, 1904): 494.
2. Ibid, page 495.
3. Ibid, page 493.
4. Ibid, page 494.
5. Ibid, page 496.
2 thoughts on “Hatched on the Broken Bough of War: The Meaning Behind the 90th PA Monument”
I have always wondered if the monument was in part inspired by the “Broken Oak” (La Chene Brise) monument in Sedan, France. https://www.flickr.com/photos/leonandloisphotos/5985839593