The Things We Remember: Interpreting the Virginia Memorial

By Olivia Ortman ’19

When I was in high school, I read The Things They Carried for my English class. It is a fiction book about the Vietnam War written by a Vietnam veteran. The author, Tim O’Brien, had the life experiences to write an autobiography based on true events, but he chose fiction as his vehicle. He explains this choice in one of the chapters in his book. O’Brien stated that, in an ironic way, fiction allowed him to share more truth than reality. His made-up stories allowed him to create the feelings and meanings of the war that his real experiences couldn’t get across for people who had not lived them. This is an idea that has stuck with me ever since, and it has been on my mind a lot lately.

This year, I was asked to work on a special project for the Civil War Institute that involves creating a new wayside for the Gettysburg battlefield. Another student and I have partnered with Gettysburg NPS to write a wayside for the Virginia Memorial. This is a very daunting task, especially in today’s political climate, which has made me all the more determined to do history and the monument justice. A lot of what I have been sifting through for the monument deals with Civil War memory, especially Gettysburg and Confederate memory. This is why I have kept going back to The Things They Carried. Like O’Brien’s book, the Virginia Monument is a fictitious image of a war scene. It was not meant to depict an actual scene of war but to share important feelings. The big questions for me have been what those intended feelings were and how they have shaped our memory of Confederate involvement at Gettysburg.

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Virginia Memorial. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The speeches from the monument’s dedication answered many of my contextual questions. The memorial was revealed in June of 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I. The dedication speakers were quick to connect the monument’s significance to war efforts. The country needed men to enlist and families to support the war effort from home. The Virginia Memorial became a tool for inspiring those sacrifices. Each speaker explained that by remembering the martial valor of Virginians and their dedication to the Confederacy, Americans would find an example of what would be required of them in World War I. “We treasure the heroic deeds and inspiring example of all the brave soldiers living and dead who gave to us and to the world a new standard of American manhood,” proclaimed Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.

This new standard of manhood was also used to reunite the country. Dedication speakers repeatedly stressed the greatness of American unity after such great sectional strife. Standing in the crowd on June 8, 1917 were Union and Confederate veterans. 54 years earlier, those same veterans had faced each other on opposite sides of the field for Pickett’s Charge with the intention to kill. Something like that doesn’t go away overnight. The design of the Virginia Memorial was an attempt to smooth over the still-lingering scars of war through a celebration of martial manhood. The Virginians at the base of the memorial represent the ideal soldiers. Although each man is from a different military branch, they are all strong and manly. Their faces and stances show a mixture of anxiety and determination. They are facing great odds, but they will go forward. Lee towers above the group, the picture of stoicism. He is calm and collected, even in the face of battle. At the time, he was also a reminder of Christian ideals. This was a man who believed God had a plan for him and allowed that faith to keep him steadfast. These were values that could be appreciated by men everywhere, regardless of their war loyalties. Those Union and Confederate veterans could stand beside each other in the crowd that June day and find common ground.

How these messages affect our memory of Gettysburg and the Confederacy is interesting. On the one hand, the romantic aspect of the Virginia Memorial obscures many realities. For example, the focus on the military side of war often excludes the Confederate cause. Like the Virginia Memorial, our conversations often jump right into the fight and skip past why the men were there fighting. The Confederacy was formed to protect the right to own slaves as property. The soldiers themselves had different reasons for fighting, but the ultimate Confederate goal was to successfully secede and protect slavery. We don’t see that in the monument, and subsequently, most of us aren’t having that conversation when we visit the battlefield. The Virginia Memorial also adds to the misconception that Gettysburg was the end of the Confederacy. When I talk to many of my non-history friends, they think that Gettysburg spelled the end for the Confederacy and that Appomattox was right around the corner. They are shocked when I tell them that the war continued for two more years after Gettysburg. Clearly, Gettysburg didn’t end the Confederacy if they could keep going for two years; it was just one of their defeats. However, the Virginia Memorial’s depiction of the soldiers as grimly determined to do their duty even though they knew they would lose makes Pickett’s Charge the last stand of the Confederacy in popular memory.

On the other hand, the Virginia Memorial also reveals a lot about Americans at the time. Seeing the celebration of martial manhood reminds us of the importance of rigid gender roles at the time. We can see that men were expected to defend their cause and prove their worth on the battlefield. The absence of slavery representation tells us that Americans have always been uncomfortable with our past connection to the institution. It also shows us that unification was important above all else. Even though the Union  won, Northerners allowed Southerners to place this shrine of Confederate ideals on the Gettysburg battlefield. Northerners allowed Lee to top this monument in a somewhat defiant location that allows him to stare down Union General Meade. Northerners even accepted speeches which hailed Virginians of the Confederacy as the ultimate examples of ideal soldiers and men. Virginians compromised by displaying their state flag on the monument instead of the Confederate flag. They also made several revisions to the inscription at the base in an attempt to find a less inflammatory message. Both sides were willing to make concessions for the goal of unity. That’s the legacy that the Virginia Memorial gives us. We still have a lot of work to do as a nation, and we always will, but we treasure our unity and will always fight for that.


Sources

Dugan, David. 15-23-0327: Virginia Memorial. August 17, 2015. In Wikimedia Commons. Accessed November 13, 2017.

Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy : Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014. Accessed November 15, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Gallagher, Gary W., and Nolan, Alan T. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000. Accessed November 15, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Ingraham, William M. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By Hon. William M. Ingraham, Assistant Secretary of War.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Mariner Books, 2009.

Przyblek, Leslie A. Soldiers to Science: Changing Confederate Ideals in the Public Sculpture of Frederick William Sievers.

Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

Warriors of Bronze: The Virginia Monument and Remembrance Day

By Zachary Wesley ’20

Memory is a peculiar thing. To recall it is to remember, and there are two days dedicated to this activity in mid-November in Gettysburg. On November 18 and 19, reenactors and keynote speakers gather here to honor the sacrifices of millions of soldiers and sailors during the American Civil War. November 19 rings throughout the history of oration as the date of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, itself an exercise in remembrance. The recent Remembrance and Dedication Days have encouraged me to think of my work on the Virginia Monument Wayside Project in light of the celebrations. Just as much as the parades and memorial wreaths, the monument speaks to a complex, ever-evolving memory of one of the defining moments in American history.

On June 8, 1917, a crowd gathered in front of the veiled Virginia Monument. Politicians and ministers gave stirring speeches that celebrated the valor of Virginia’s soldiers,  especially Robert E. Lee. The date was a crucial moment in reconciliationist memory of the war. For the majority of the previous fifty years, Union veterans and Northern politicians vehemently opposed nearly every attempt to commemorate the Confederacy at Gettysburg. As the ranks of veterans’ organizations thinned and new generations of Americans prepared to embark on ships bound for France, attitudes began to shift. The monument’s design followed a rocky road as well.

The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy, is notably absent from the monument. Instead, the gallant Virginia trooper along the monument’s base carries the Virginia State Flag. This feature is no accident. The War Department and the Battlefield Commissioners strongly encouraged the use of the State Flag and the committee formed by Virginia’s General Assembly complied. One suggested inscription containing the phrase,“They Fought for the Faith of Their Fathers” was rejected outright by the Commissioners. They wanted a politically neutral message in the monuments on the landscape. Regardless, the monument possessed, and continues to possess, a powerful message of the Southern – specifically Virginian – memory of the war.

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This photograph shows one of Frederick William Siever’s plaster studies of an early design for the Virginia Monument. The soldiers are replaced by women, children, and a grave. The image of Lee as the protector of the South’s most vulnerable inhabitants presents a protector of virtue and innocence rather than a master of strategy. It is curious to think what message the Virginia Monument might show if this design were what we see today. Photo courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.

The romantic heroism of the soldiers on the Virginia Monument is evident, yet so too is a hint of anxious preparedness for an assault on the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge. Even before the monument’s creation, many individuals in both the North and South embraced the attitude that Pickett’s Division was a force comparable to Napoleon’s Old Guard. Robert E. Lee epitomized the Christian, agrarian values of the Old South. Absent, however, was the specter of slavery. Lee became the silent spokesperson for a lost way of life. This message is not explicitly written on the monument, though the speakers at the unveiling understood this point well. Governor Henry Carter Stuart of Virginia stated that Lee “represents and embodies all that Virginia and her sister Southern States can or need vouchsafe to the country and to the world as the supreme example of their convictions and principles.”

No doubt few visitors take the time to consider seriously the history of the layered memories associated with the Virginia Monument. The same, perhaps, can be said of the activities of Dedication and Remembrance Days. The November 19 festivities date only to 1938: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Cemetery’s dedication. Congress formalized the day eight years later. At a time when only a handful of Civil War veterans remained, the occasion presented an opportunity for Lincoln’s words to live on as those who carried their echoes passed away.

The messages of Union and liberty are still as apparent to modern audiences as they were to the crowds of 1863 and 1938, though the context has changed considerably. Initially a holiday that honored only Union veterans, Confederate sacrifices, too, are now part of the festivities. As debates about the display of Confederate imagery continue to swirl, the meaning of both Dedication and Remembrance Day and the Virginia Monument will continue to change, as well. Memory is shaped by these same currents, evolving with each subsequent generation until the amnesia of time obscures fact into fantasy. Memory is complex. For instance, memory makes some of the most gruesome events of history – the Civil War, for example – appear rosy and grand. The grim realities of slavery, and its role in the countless political debates before and during the Civil War, was one of the first casualties of this amnesia, as were the horrors of the battlefield. How else were the worlds of Gone with the Wind or The Blue and the Gray born? On other occasions, however, memory may summon the pains of the past, and encourage us to think critically about wounds that continue to plague us. Indeed, memory is a peculiar thing.


Sources:

Dedication Day – Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address,” Destination Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2017.

Nicholson, John P. John P. Nicholson to L.L. Lomax, February 7, 1912. Gettysburg National Military Park Archives.

Reardon, Carol. Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917, By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Speech Given at the Dedication of the Virginia Monument, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

Improving the Present by Studying the Past: Killed at Gettysburg Remembers O’Rorke and Phelps

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This semester, I have had the honor of working on the Civil War Institute’s Killed at Gettysburg project, hosted at killedatgettysburg.org. The project seeks to document the lives and legacies of soldiers who died during the three days of fighting in July 1863. I am happy to be contributing to Killed at Gettysburg again, as I strongly connected with the project when I worked on it for Dr. Carmichael’s Gettysburg class last semester.

In the course of my research and writing, I have dealt specifically with two men who gave their lives at Gettysburg. One, Colonel Patrick O’Rorke of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, is quite possibly one of the most well-known soldiers among the battle’s dead. The other, Fourth Sergeant Charles Phelps of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, may not be quite as famous but still has a great story of his own. Over the last couple of months, I have researched the lives and deaths of these two gallant soldiers and constructed narratives to inform readers about their experiences before Gettysburg; what happened to them on July 2, 1863; and how their deaths affected other people, both at home and beyond. Supplementary interactive maps will join these narrative texts in the final product, enabling viewers to explore the ground over which Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps took their final steps and creating a more holistic reader experience.

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Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, 140th New York. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

My primary goal throughout my work on Killed at Gettysburg has always centered around putting flesh and blood behind these stories of the past. Rather than presenting O’Rorke and Phelps as ephemeral legends of a bygone era, I want to humanize them to the reader. These men who gave their lives so long ago had personalities that made them unique. In addition to remarkable heroism and bravery, they had hopes, dreams, worries, and fears, just as we do today. I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project can help close the gap between the past and the present by making readers feel like they are truly getting to know the soldiers we are profiling on a level beyond their basic achievements in life.

In many ways, it is hard to believe that it has been 154 years since the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s famed address. Living and learning in Gettysburg can sometimes make it feel as though these events took place not so long ago. This observation, and the commemorations that take place each year, beg a larger question: why bother remembering what happened at Gettysburg? What makes men like Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps worthy of attention in a modern that is world far different from that which they inhabited?

To me, we should–and do still–care about the past because of how it can help us improve in our present and our future. O’Rorke and Phelps both demonstrated highly admirable qualities in their daily lives and on the battlefield at Gettysburg that we can learn from today, even across such a wide expanse of time. Patrick O’Rorke grew up as an Irish immigrant during a time when anti-Irish sentiment was at its absolute highest in the United States. Yet, he did not allow himself to be put in a box based on his background; he excelled as a student, graduated first in his class at West Point, and appeared poised for a sterling military career before a Confederate bullet tore through his neck on Little Round Top. Charles Phelps demonstrated great loyalty and tenacity by striking down the enemy soldier who had mortally wounded his brigade commander before being killed near the Wheatfield. Only nineteen years old at the time of his enlistment, Phelps displayed strength beyond his years in his final hours. Both men ultimately put their lives on the line for the cause of the Union in which they so dearly believed. When the time came, as Lincoln said, they gave their last full measure of devotion, and that ultimate sacrifice cannot be forgotten. Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps stand as prime examples of courage and devotion that we can still learn from, and to me, that makes their stories matter even today.

Each year, Remembrance Day provides us with a perfect opportunity to consider these lessons and sacrifices from so long ago. The luminaria candles that adorn the gravestones in the Soldiers National Cemetery represent the everlasting public memory of those who gave their lives so that the nation might live. Though Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps are both buried in their home states rather than the national cemetery, I believe that those candles burn for them as well. Beyond the immediate stimulus of Remembrance Day, I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project will also keep these flames of memory alive. O’Rorke and Phelps deserve secure places in the public mind so that we in the present can continue to learn from their exemplary lives and legacies. Remembrance Day and Killed at Gettysburg both serve as important reminders of these lessons from the past, and this year we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves once again.

Remembrance Day: History, Memory and the 20th Maine

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Every November, on the Saturday closest to the 19th, the town of Gettysburg celebrates Remembrance Day. This day is held in memory of those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg and during the Civil War as a whole. On November 19th, crowds gather to celebrate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. These events pose a few very important questions: why do we still remember the Civil War in this manner? Why do we find it so important to have an entire day dedicated just to Civil War soldiers? Why does Civil War memory matter?

Over the semester, I have been working on a project in which similar questions have arisen. I am working to create a new wayside for the 20th Maine on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one that currently sits there is more a wayside to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain than it is to the men of the regiment. Why do officers seem to loom so far above regular soldiers? During Remembrance Day, the ordinary soldiers who sacrificed their lives are remembered, which is very important because without them, the generals who are usually highlighted would not have been able to accomplish the feats they are best remembered for. Something I have been attempting to do in developing the text for the wayside is remember the ordinary soldier and shift the 20th Maine’s story away from only being about Joshua Chamberlain. This has proved a challenging task, as the ghosts of the movie Gettysburg that propelled Chamberlain to fame do not seem to want to leave.

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20th Maine memorial on Little Round Top. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As I am from Maine, this project has been a special one for me. I am helping shape the legacy of fellow Mainers. I am also working to write a text that will influence visitor’s perceptions of the battle and Maine’s role in it. While Maine did have many other regiments at Gettysburg, the 20th is the one that is best remembered and most likely offers battlefield visitors’ only glimpse of the state. I want to do my fellow Mainers and their sacrifice at Little Round Top justice while at the same time making sure I am not being plagued by Chamberlain’s ghost and the idea that the 20th Maine saved the Union. In addition to all of this, I am left with the question of why this matters. Why is the 20th Maine so important, and how will the words I write shape their memory? This is not an easy question to grapple with, but as a history major, I believe that history matters and  the way we remember it is important.

History helps us learn from our past and gives us context for the problems in the present, and thus, how we tell this history and how we shape the past has important contemporary implications. Do we present a past that paints the Maine men as noble and dedicated heroes, or do we portray them as men who had flaws and may not even have wanted to fight? I believe the solution is a combination of both. The 20th Maine was made up of regular men, but they did do something heroic and important. Theirs was a critical position in the Union line but, at the same time, the battle raged on for another day and the war for another two years, so by no means did the 20th Maine save the Union. This question of how to best remember is an important one, and I believe it is raised in both my wayside project and on Remembrance Day. Is it right to remember the men who died through reenactments and parades? How do we shape memory in a way that is true to history, and how do we do justice to the men that died at Gettysburg while at the same time being careful not to make them akin to gods?

The Grand Parade: Remembering the American Civil War

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

On November 21, a small contingent from the 26th PEMR or PCG—Gettysburg College’s reenacting group—gathered early in the morning in Union uniform and civilian dress outside of the Appleford Inn. With a flowered wreath in hand, the small group made their way down Chambersburg Street. There, in sight of the Dollar General and the Segway Tour office, they laid the wreath at the base of the monument, which features a young college boy, musket in hand, as he marches off to battle. The group of students read the history of the unit and had their pictures taken, an annual tradition that has become a prominent memory in the minds of the student reenactors.

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The monument to the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Regiment. Photography by the author.

For many, Civil War reenacting serves as a way to remember the Civil War. With reenactments ranging from large scale events like Gettysburg to small town living histories, thousands of men and women from all around the country—indeed, from all around the globe—choose to wear wool uniforms and day dresses and reenact this period of history. Reenacting, though controversial as a medium of public history, serves as a way for many people of all different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds to remember the American Civil War and the soldiers who served. Continue reading “The Grand Parade: Remembering the American Civil War”

CWI Radio Report: Dedication Day and Remembrance Day 2015

By Jeff Lauck ’18

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Luminaria at Gettysburg National Cemetery, 2014.

UPDATE: The Dedication Day ceremony has been moved to the College Union Building at Gettysburg College due to inclement weather.

Click the play button below in order to listen to Jeff’s special report on this week’s Civil War commemorations here in Gettysburg. You can also scroll down to read through the transcript if you’d prefer. This report will be airing on WZBT throughout this week. Thanks to WZBT 91.1 FM for their help in producing this piece.

Continue reading “CWI Radio Report: Dedication Day and Remembrance Day 2015”

Remembrance Day…But Remembering What?

By Sarah Johnson ’15

In conversation with other CWI Fellows last week, we began discussing the strangeness of the annual Remembrance Day Parade. Originally conceived as a way to recreate the procession to the cemetery in 1863 to hear the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, it seems to have morphed into something different all together. If we are honoring a recommitment to the preservation of Union, why do Confederate reenactors march in the parade? If we are simply celebrating the soldiers of both sides of the Civil War, why does the parade end at the site of the address that rededicated the nation to Union emancipationist victory and a “new birth of freedom?” To sate my curiosity, I decided to go out on assignment and interview people before the parade began. I interviewed spectators and reenactors alike and asked them the following questions: 1) Is the parade a yearly tradition for you? and 2) What are you here celebrating and remembering today? Here is what I found:

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

Continue reading “Remembrance Day…But Remembering What?”