Many years ago I lived in Richmond, Virginia. I lived in The Fan District (aka “The Fan”) which was close to a very beautiful street called Monument Avenue. As you can probably surmise, Monument Avenue is a street that is host to numerous monuments, most of which memorialize various elements and heroes of the Confederacy. We Northerners used to call it “The Second Place Trophy Case.” (But we kept the joke to ourselves.) There was more than a smattering of controversy when a new addition joined the boulevard in July of 1996. It was a monument memorializing tennis great Arthur Ashe. Clearly not one with the Confederacy.
But the point is that we love our monuments and we love to memorialize. I especially love them. I covet them for a number of reasons. First off, I think many of them are magnificent pieces of art. And secondly, when I see a monument or a memorial plaque it makes me want to learn more. I want to know the back-story. Who built it? Who paid for it? What sort of event was so momentous that somebody, or some group of people, felt compelled to spend the time, the energy and the money to create a significant piece of art in order to make sure that that particular story would never be forgotten?
Nowhere is the monument phenomenon more apparent than on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Outside of the fact that it isn’t just a huge football field, I am absolutely dumbfounded by the multitudes of monuments, memorials and plaques throughout the battlefield and have come to find out there are over 1,300 of those bad boys!
In 1867 The National Cemetery had the distinction of being the first site where a memorial was dedicated to the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is fitting that the monument honors the 1st Minnesota Infantry, who happened to have been the first regiment to answer Lincoln’s call for soldiers in April 1861. In 1878 a plaque was placed at Little Round Top to memorialize Brigadier General Strong Vincent who was mortally wounded there. Then in 1879 a tablet was placed at the edge of Spangler’s Meadow honoring the men of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.
The idea of memorializing by way of monuments eventually caught on and then spread like wildfire. By the time the Battle’s 25th Anniversary rolled around, Northern States were ponying up sums ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $40,000 a pop. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.
And yet the Southern States did not join the party until the battle was behind them by 50 years. And even then it was difficult because there just wasn’t much money to spend. So the South decided, rather than just inundating the area with monuments, they would erect one for each of the Southern States. In my opinion, it was the best thing they could have done. The monuments that were created for the South are beautiful pieces of art and because there are so few, the areas where they stand are not cluttered.
There are a few monuments that really stand out for me. One that I stumbled on and then photographed is a memorial with an image of a fireman standing alongside a soldier as if they are “brothers in arms.” The plaque acknowledges a New York Volunteer Fire Department. I was taken aback. It never dawned on me that a fire department would be part of a battle, much less memorialized for it. Sadly, two weeks later I would understand the horrifying truth of how much we depend on our firefighters in battle. I took this photo on August 30, 2001.
One of my favorite monuments, because it is truly a piece of art, is Louisiana’s State Monument. I can’t really articulate why. I am not religious, so angels and trumpets aren’t really going to do it for me. It could be the high drama of it. I’m not sure. Either way I find the sculpture made by Donald De Lue to be quite compelling.
In 2010 I went back to Gettysburg accompanied by two Australians and a French Canadian. (And that is a story for a completely different type of blog post.) This time I hired a personal tour guide (and all-around smarty-pants) by the name of Bosch, who introduced me to the monument for the State of North Carolina. That happens to be his favorite. Turns out that it was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum. That name should ring a bell. He’s the guy who immortalized Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson & Roosevelt by carving them into the side of a little mountain we now call Mount Rushmore.
Knowing that bit of information now really makes me take more notice when walking around historic sites. You never know what you may learn or what little tidbit of knowledge will lead to further inquiry which will then bring you to a whole new discovery. And that, in a shell of nuts, is what my little adventure is all about.
NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.