This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
In his essay, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” Kirk Savage describes a phenomenon in which the plastic arts of memory can re-appropriate blocks of bronze and stone meant to convey a certain message about the Civil War and change their meaning entirely. There is no better materialization of this theory than the Meade Pyramid located on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The 400-ton granite structure constructed near Prospect Hill had the original intent of marking the location of General “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters; however, in time the purpose of the monument shifted to denote the location of a small, but unique, Union success on the Fredericksburg Battlefield – General Meade’s breakthrough of the Confederate lines. It is this monument’s new purpose which provides its modern namesake.
The pyramid was built in 1898 by a partnership between the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS) and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. The intent of the monument’s purpose was clear even in the initial stages of design. R.F.&P. Railroad employee John Rice was charged with visiting the mammoth Confederate memorial pyramid at Hollywood National Cemetery in Richmond in order to take measurements in an attempt to build a scaled-down duplicate by the tracks at Prospect Hill. From personal experience, the Hollywood Cemetery Pyramid sits in the epitome of “Moonlight & Magnolia” romanticism, but its location is isolated in a tucked away small portion of the vast cemetery. The Meade Pyramid, however was placed right beside the railroad tracks with the primary goal of serving as a landmark-memorial to the most geographically diverse audience Fredericksburg regularly experienced – those travelers passing through town by rail. If nothing else, it is safe to say that the pyramid embodied romantic Confederate memory and placed it at a location of highest public exposure.
One important aspect of the equation has changed significantly over the last 100 years. The speed at which trains travel has dramatically increased. The once magnificent landmark had been reduced to a brown blur for travelers, and its purpose lost its clarity as well. Although it was positioned to be highly visible to an extensive public audience, today the majority of park visitors come by car, and are discouraged from approaching the monument because it sits dangerously on the opposite side of the active tracks from the drivable portion of the battlefield. Instead, the large stone edifice serves as a visible geographic marker for the successful breakthrough location of General Meade’s 3rd Division of the First Corps – one of the only redeeming portions of the battlefield for the Federal Army.
However, lack of proper care and maintenance from the CMLS since 1945, and neglect from the National Park Service since its acquisition in 1978, has left the Meade Pyramid in a state of deterioration. Not only has vegetation begun to hide the face of the structure, but the structural integrity of the pyramid is declining as stones become dislodged from the northwest and southeast portions of the base. Visitors are further discouraged from approaching the monument due to hazards related to dangerous wildlife which may inhabit its rocky crevices.
As Savage argues, the memory and meaning of monuments is fluid and ever-changing. The Meade Pyramid serves as a perfect example, going from romantic Confederate celebration, to geographic Union landmark, to a forgotten and crumbling ruin of Confederate memory. Indeed, Confederate celebration and memory is being hotly contested this summer and seemingly discredited as an archaic ruin of the past – no longer structurally sound enough to withstand the public marketplace of ideas. But as human nature has led the country to question Confederate memory and reclaim a portion of a state capitol from the deteriorating legitimacy of the rebel colors, so has nature reclaimed the crumbling pyramid – gravity ever pulling it down, nature reclaiming the space, and Americans forgetting its memorial purpose. The Meade Pyramid’s crumbling walls are physical realization of the continual discrediting of celebratory Confederate memory.
Pfanz, Donald. History Through Eyes of Stone: A Survey of the Monuments in the Fredericksburg National Military Park. 1983.
Savage, Kirk. “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” in John R. Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, 1994): 127-149.