Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Commemorating the War in Public Spaces: Virginia and Massachusetts

For some people, the thought of a stereotypical Southern town may evoke images of an old bronze statue of a Confederate soldier keeping watch over a quaint courthouse square.  This picture would not be far off the mark, at least as far as Virginia is concerned.  According to the Washington Post, scholars consider Virginia to have the "densest concentration" of so-called Confederate common-soldier statues.  However, during a recent trip to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, I was reminded that the South certainly does not have a monopoly when it comes to such relics of the post-Civil War era. 

Following our nation's fratricidal conflict, both sides sought to commemorate the sacrifices that their soldiers and sailors had made.  Monuments, erected mostly in public spaces during the late 19th and early 20th century, were a way for communities and veterans' groups to ensure that no one would ever forget the local men who had fought and died in the late war.  Today, Confederate war memorials survive as an enduring part of the Southern landscape, although not without controversy linked to the taint of slavery.  But for every statue or monument in a Southern town, there is a counterpart in a Northern hamlet, waiting to be discovered.  In this post, I'd like to share with readers just a small sample of Civil War memorials that I've come across in Virginia and Massachusetts.

One of the most visible monuments in Northern Virginia is the statue of a lone Confederate soldier looking down Washington Street in Old Town Alexandria, his backed turned to the nation's capital.  The sculpture, known as "Appomattox," was erected in 1889 by the Robert E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans and honors Alexandrians who died while serving the Confederacy.  No matter how many times I get to Old Town, I like to pause to reflect on this statue, which seems so anachronistic in today's Northern Virginia of young, upwardly mobile, and diverse transplants. (I previously wrote about the statue's role in Civil War memory and explained why it makes sense to preserve such monuments, however uncomfortable they may make us feel today.)

Confederate Statue (1889), Alexandria, Virginia
In Leesburg, Virginia, another Confederate soldier watches over the Loudoun County Courthouse.  Early in the last century, the Loudoun County Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and local Confederate veterans led a fundraising drive to erect the monument.  Unveiled in 1908, the monument honors Confederate soldiers from Loudoun County.  The statue was sculpted by Frederick William Sievers, who is better known for his Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg.

Confederate Monument (1908), Leesburg, Virginia
One of my first exposures to Civil War memorials in Massachusetts came during a family trip to Nantucket in 2009.  I snapped a photograph of the memorial there while touring the island with my wife.  The town erected this simple memorial in 1875 as a tribute to the local whalers and farmers who had fought and died for the Union.  The memorial reminds us that even a remote place like Nantucket felt the war's impact in a very real way.

Civil War Memorial (1875), Nantucket, Massachusetts

This past October I traveled to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a charming small town in the heart of the Berkshires.  There too I found a Civil War monument dedicated to local citizens who had fought for "liberty and union."  The impressive monument, unveiled in front of the City Hall in 1876, is topped by a bronze statue of the goddess Victory.  Great Barrington took its obligation to the town's native sons very seriously and kicked in about $5,000 to erect the monument.  Private citizens contributed the balance.  The effort to place a monument also spurred the construction of the new City Hall at the time.

Civil War Monument (1876), Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Inscription on the Great Barrington Civil War Monument
Union and Confederate soldiers may have fought for different causes, but war monuments both North and South have much in common.  These memorials represent communities' means of honoring locals who served and died during the conflict.  They stand as a vivid reminder that the Civil War once reached into every corner of the nation.  People today may rush past these monuments, or view them as historical curiosities, or try to politicize them through a modern lens, but at one time, they represented the very real emotions of generations who were touched by war in some personal way.  The next time you walk through Old Town, or vacation in New England, stop before these memorials and listen.  They have a lot to tell us about war and remembrance.

Tara Bahrampour, "Despite Virginia's Role in Electing First Black President, Confederate Soldier Statues Hold Their Ground," Washington Post, March 21, 2009; The Historical Marker Database, Entry on the Confederate Statue, Alexandria, VA: The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Art Inventories Catalog, "Civil War Monument 'Victory'"; Eduard Stackpole, "The Forgotten Town in the Sea is Rediscovered: The Beginning of Nantucket's Great Revival--1870," Historic Nantucket, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 1988); Charles James Taylor, History of Great Barrington (1882); Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA, Leesburg Confederate Monument Collection, 1901-1908 (PDF file);


Anonymous said...

Nice story. Keep it up.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

A nice surprise to see the picture of the Confederate Monument in Leesburg, Va. My g grandfather Henry J Houpt built the concert base for this Monument, his son serving in the 28th Virginia Infantry Company G. I have a lot of information about them should anyone be interested. Harold Houpt Jr