The prison site of Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumter, is today just an empty field in picturesque Southwest Georgia. The only physical remains of the original site are the earthworks that surrounded the camp to protect Camp Sumter from a cavalry raid or an attack by Sherman’s Army. It is hard to fathom that nearly 45,000 men lived in this field at one time or another over a fourteen-month timeframe and of those nearly 13,000 perished. The 30% fatality rate for those who came through the gates make it the single deadliest site of the Civil War. The men’s cries for water, food and their pleas for someone to come and put an end to their horrific suffering are just echoes now. Yet their story lives on and the battle for memory at Andersonville still rages.
Large numbers of people pass through the prison site and museum at Andersonville, and all have reactions to the site one way or another. Some of the more interesting reactions come from white southerners. They are either disgusted with Captain Wirz – the Confederate commanding officer of the camp – and hold him accountable for the prisoners’ suffering, ashamed that their beloved South could induce such horrors and suffering. However, some residents are dismissive, make excuses and try to justify the actions of Captain Wirz. They put the blame of the camp’s existence itself to General Grant and the Northern officials for their refusal to reinstitute the exchange program, which is true. These Southerners commonly come up to the information desk angered by the museum and cite Northern Civil War Prison Camps such as Elmira and Point Lookout as a point of comparison. Their argument is “The South by 1864 did not have the resources to feed these men, the North had the assets and they let the Southern Soldiers starve in their camps. They should have reinstated the prisoner exchanges or this would not have happened.” They almost always storm out of the building. Why does this museum and National Park Service facility bring out such emotions in many visitors? Simply put, Andersonville for many Americans is synonymous with suffering and death in the Civil War. Thus, many of the monuments erected by the Union states, unlike those at most Civil War sites and battlefields, do not convey a sense of victory, but of sacrifice and somber reflection.
Though its monuments are not nearly as numerous as those at Gettysburg, Antietam National Battlefield is still dotted with hundreds of monuments that commemorate those who fought and died in the struggle between North and South. Most of the monuments here reflect that struggle; there are monuments to northern states and regiments, and then there are other monuments, though much fewer, that memorialize those soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. There is one monument here that breaks the mold. It does not focus as much on the fighting of the battle as it does on the reunification and reconciliation that occurred afterward.
The Maryland state monument is one of the main attractions for visitors, in no small part because it commemorates the soldiers that fought and died defending their own land. This monument is unique because it is a memorial not to either Union or Confederate soldiers, but to men from both sides. In the Battle of Antietam, Marylanders fought in both the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, killing each other on the ground that they both called home. Continue reading “Antietam – The Maryland State Monument and Reconciliation”
Every generation has plenty to remember about its time spent shaping the human story. But despite this, some generations are better at writing their stories than others. Or perhaps some generations leave more unfinished work for their descendants to sift through. Either way, the legacy of the Civil War still lays heavy on our shoulders. Here at Gettysburg, in particular, the memory of the nation coalesces around a few days in a July long gone. The remembrance began the day after, with letters home, official reports, and raw thoughts scrawled across diary pages. But the years kept coming. New people and new events shaped the nation, while old people and past events faded, their specifics murky, and their significance uncertain. New generations knew the war meant something, but what? That is the question that every generation since has sought to answer in the style and sense of its time. The further time crept from the trial of the Civil War, the more new people with new interests and new agendas could proclaim their answers on old fields with new monuments and new speeches.
Kirk Savage’s article, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” examines how this trend shaped the immediate post-war years. By revealing how a template Civil War monument emerged to serve both sides after the war—a very select celebration of unbroken white manhood on both sides—Savage helps illustrate the fundamentally political nature of memorialization. After the war, both North and South began to enshrine the war in the most emotionally and politically efficacious ways possible. While monuments still reflected some level of sectional divide, they almost universally ignored the black perspective on the war and its significance, regarding it as irrelevant, if not outright toxic. Northern and Southern political interests could largely coexist so long as they both ignored this key dimension of the war years and their aftermath. People North and South could still take solace in knowing why their loved ones died by attaching any one of a number of explanations to the same stock pedestal, with the same marble soldier set to stand tall on that explanation for eternity. This tacit agreement left much unresolved baggage for later generations. Continue reading “Making a Statement: The Alabama Memorial at Gettysburg”
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. Continue reading “The Meade Pyramid’s Shifting Sands”
Any visitor to the Gettysburg battlefield will no doubt be almost overwhelmed with the numbers of monuments and memorials to various Union and Confederate units strewn about the field. Sculpted soldiers with sabers, rifles, even fists raised in defiance of the enemy, ever charging forward into the heat of battle are commonplace. In the case of most Union monuments, a culture of just victory and celebration of noble sacrifice emanates from gray stones and bronze figures. One monument, however, tucked along Sickles Avenue in the Rose Woods, portrays a different message. The monument of the 116th Pennsylvania, erected by regimental survivors in 1888, is the only monument at Gettysburg that depicts a dead soldier. While other monuments, such as the Freemason monument at the Soldier’s National Cemetery, the Louisiana state monument, and the Mississippi state monument depict wounded soldiers, these monuments are accompanied by themes of fraternity and noble sacrifice as the focal point rather than the fallen soldier himself.
Recruited from the Irish-American population of Philadelphia, the 116th was a part of the famed Irish Brigade. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the 116th performed well by rescuing a Maine battery from capture. For this action, the 116th’s commander, Major St. Clair A. Mulholland, received the Medal of Honor. By the battle of Gettysburg, the 116th had been reduced to barely four companies. During the morning of the July 2, the 116th moved in to support the right flank of the III Corps and fought in various support capacities throughout the day. At the end of the battle, the 116th had lost two men killed, twelve wounded, and eight missing. Continue reading “Noble Sacrifice or Meaningless Death? Interpreting the 116th PA Monument”
One of the most seductive forms that Confederate memory has taken in the century and a half since the alleged return of peace truly reeks of a David vs. Goliath complex. The image of the luckless-yet-plucky Johnny fighting off endless blue waves of Northern invaders—with all of the hope of a man stabbing the ebbing ocean with a butter knife—endures in popular memory. As Tony Horowitz’s investigations in the 1990’s uncovered, those sympathetic to the Southern cause have long since codified the notion of the rebel cause as A) nobly doomed from the start on account of the North’s overwhelming industry and manpower and B) a stand for noble principles of personal freedom from governmental intervention—i.e. the ‘States Rights’ argument. In all of this, of course, there is no longer any serious contemplation of the horrors of slavery, the clear unhappiness of the slaves, or the palpable class-based oppression of the South’s antebellum ‘Haves’—the slaveholding aristocracy. The days when political alignments eclipsed the dark side of the South have long since passed, but the old rationalizations still persist and mistakenly defend the Southern war effort, portraying her soldiers as spotless martyrs.
And these views can be hard to challenge. Not from an objective standard, necessarily, but from an emotional one. A visit to Point Lookout, Maryland—former site of one of the larger prisoner of war camps to hold captured rebels—reminds visitors of how strongly the plight of the rebel prisoner of war is still felt today. The sight sports not one but two grand monuments to the Southerners who perished in Federal captivity. A sober obelisk placed by the United States government post-war marks a mass grave for 3,384 Confederate prisoners who could not be identified for individual burial. A dazzling, lovingly-maintained mash-up of state and rebel unit flags, soldiers’ names carved in stone, and the illuminated likeness of the ubiquitous Southern son sits separated from its sister by a few yards and a scraggly tree line. This addition appeared on the scene in 2008. Every time I visit I find reminders, such as wreaths, that people have taken time out of their lives to drive to the very tip of Maryland to pay their respects.
Recently, I contributed a piece called “Days Gone By, Days to Come: Monuments and the Politics of Peace” on the political teeth with which monuments are often imbued (or are deliberately denied). While I do not intend to ramble on about this issue—I hope that the previous piece will do enough to inspire readers to take a critical eye to any monuments that they cross in the future—I felt that one more story of poor documentation deserved illumination. The context: as Charles Lane chronicles in his book The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, on April 13, 1873—Easter Sunday—the racial and political tensions already boiling in Reconstruction-Era Louisiana burst into decisive, open racial warfare. On that date, the Colfax courthouse in Grant Parish was stormed by a mob of white Democrats who, in a final bid to resolve the question of which party’s candidate had won the 1872 gubernatorial election, shattered the trench lines around the courthouse with small arms and a small cannon. Defending the courthouse were hundreds of freedmen and white Republican officials who had fled into Colfax from the countryside as racial violence had grown increasingly prevalent and organized. Most were refugee women and children. By massacre’s end, three whites and up to one hundred and fifty freedmen lay dead. A PBS documentary on Ulysses S. Grant reports that “nearly half [the victims were] murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered.”
In the century and a half following the events of that Easter Sunday, the victims of Colfax have not been allowed to rest. Their memory has primarily been ignored or bent toward political ends, usually by those who couldn’t care less for the massacre’s victims of white supremacy. The site’s monuments reflect this. Perhaps there is no more abhorrent example of blood bound to stone for shallow aims in all of U.S. history. Continue reading “Tributes to Terror: The Mis-Monumentation of the Colfax Massacre”
Monuments may or may not represent the facts of a battle. They are, after all, post-facto by design. They may or may not have anything to do with the specifics of a conflict or its combatants. Many make a statement focusing not on an aspect of the suffering of a past war, but on an aspect of the peace that the survivors and their descendants hope to foster. They are not just memorial—born out of memory—but also political. Just as the future is fully malleable, so too is what we tell ourselves about the past. The images and ideas that a monument invokes are often designed, and how they are designed can reveal much about the builders and their aspirations.
For example, I once wrote a piece on the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers’ monument here at Gettysburg. Rather than reiterate, let it suffice to say that it caught my eye because it was unusual. A granite tree for a monument? Even one shattered by shellfire is unorthodox. Embossed with a metal dove and a nest full of lively chicks seems even odder. I would argue that in building that unorthodox monument, the regiment’s survivors hoped to make a statement. They hoped not just to draw attention to themselves—not just to claim fame with a physical mark. They wanted to tie their toil and tribulation to something positive rather than negative. Rather than dwell on the bloody math of men lost and yards won, they attached redemptive imagery to their physical mark on Earth. Continue reading “Days Gone By, Days to Come: Monuments and the Politics of Peace”
The Gettysburg Battlefield has over one thousand monuments dedicated to a host of brave men who fought and gave their lives during the three day engagement in July of 1863. Littered alongside well-traveled roads and points of attraction on the battlefield, most do not go unnoticed. There are a few, however, that do. One of them commemorates Captain Heckman’s Battery K of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery, an oft-passed but unnoticed monument on Gettysburg College’s campus and the focus of one of my previous blog posts . Another cluster of monuments in the vicinity of the Gettysburg College campus and Heckman’s monument is just as much, if not more, removed from what one would consider the traditional battlefield and is often overlooked if not forgotten about. But if the readers of the Gettysburg Compiler are anything like me, the stories behind these forgotten monuments, the ones rarely told, are the most interesting ones of the battle.
If you were to turn down Stevens Street from Carlisle Street, you would eventually determine that you hit a dead end road. At least that was what I thought when the van carrying thirty Gettysburg College students on an unconventional battlefield tour turned down the street and came to a stop in front of a grassy area. Confusion set in as we were instructed to unload off the bus. This wasn’t the battlefield; we were in a neighborhood.
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.