Monuments in the Time of National Reconciliation

by Cliff Page

With the Election of Rutherford B. Hayes by a one vote margin, the Compromise of 1877 ended the era of Reconstruction. As Southern states were re-admitted into the Union, federal troops stood down or returned to the North.

From about 1885 to 1924, before and after the 50th Anniversary of the War between the States, Americans felt a need for forgiveness, reunification and remembrance of the greatest war Americans ever fought and hopefully ever will. There was a great desire for conciliation and honor for aging veterans and those who had perished on the battlefields. The America Beautiful movement was in full swing with the goal of employing parks, public spaces, sculpture, urban landscaping and rebuilding to make life more livable, civil and cultured. The era was our American Renaissance – economically, politically, artistically and scientifically.

Contemplate for a moment two great works of American sculpture, one honoring Gen. homas “Stonewall” Jackson, CSA,(above) and the other Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, USA (below). The American sculptors of these two great works of equestrian martial art, Charles Keck and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, were both members of the National Sculptor Society. Saint-Guadens along with the architect Stanford White formed the society and also the American Academy in Rome.                                                                                                                    

 Both statues employ angels. Saint-Gaudens also depicted, an angel, as a last addition, in his most famous work “Shaw and the 54th Colored Troops”. In the monument to Sherman his female angel is on the statue itself as a full figure. She holds a branch of laurel, a sign of victory, in front of her like a guiding force pulling Sherman forward  In “Shaw,” his angel is far more quizzical. (Shaw and his men were largely slaughtered in their attempt to take Fort Wagner outside of Charleston). The Sherman angel is hinged off a sloping ground plain which gives her a feeling of suspension and her wings and chitin are blown back by the wind going past her forward motion. Likewise, Sherman’s cape is billowing back, implying his forward motion, while his posture is erect and easy, and his horse is in a canter, all signs of surety and composure in victory.  
                                                                            Keck also has an angel in his statue of Jackson, but it is carved into the base, its wings thrown back in defensive protection of Southern ground. The male angel bears his breast and defiantly exposes himself to danger, thrusting out his manly bosom in bravery to the wind. He carries a shield with the cross of St. Andrew of the Confederacy to likewise defend the Southern land from aggression. Above, the sculpture of Jackson is mounted on a small war horse, which Jackson holds back at a trot. (Jackson did not like to ride and, in fact, preferred smaller horses. Sherman is mounted on a tall and impressive dress horse.)                                                                                                                                      Jackson’s figure shows agility and dynamic action and his gaze is one of decisiveness and determination. He holds the reins as his horse tilts his head implying that Jackson is about to make a daring move. Saint-Gauden’s Sherman is gilded and elevates Sherman to the plane of the Gods with his angel as his guide. By contrast, the angel of Keck’s Jackson is fixed firmly on the sacred ground Jackson defends, as a common man with divine aid. Both of these great American monuments, to mortal men and great martial events, portray a story of defense and valor, victory and defeat, but above all they are symbolic artistic representations of our nation’s rich historical past, bequeathed to us by our forefathers. They are important pieces of American art!

The venerable Grand Old Army and the Confederate Veterans of America held conventions where tales were swapped of valor, loss, glory and honor. Wizened, white-bearded veterans held reunions at battlefields, where they staged mock engagements, relived the past, broke bread with comrades and former enemies, and extended hands of forgiveness, reconciliation and respect.  During this time both North and South erected their monuments and memorials to war heroes, leaders, comrades, and the many who had fallen in the field of battle.

Sculptures acted as eternal symbols to the Northern and Southern causes. The people who erected statues intended for soldiers and generals to live on in the minds of posterity, for the nation’s struggle not to be forgotten, and for their lives not to be counted as squandered in vain. The hope was that the honored men and events would be recalled far into the future, argued about, reflected upon, as actors in a grand play of immortal history. The purpose of the statues was to give meaning to heroism, bravery, honor, commitment, patriotism and duty.

The Civil War was a grand epic tragedy that should remind us of the faults and failures, and also the nobility, found in mankind. Northern and Southern monuments serve as guiding lights to direct future generations of Americans.  Furthermore, the monuments are among the greatest sculptural assets of our nation, created at the zenith of our cultural history.

No one monument can define this era in time, any more than a single actor or a single scene can define a play — no more than the First Battle of Manassas could define four years of endless carnage, blood, sorrow, glory and defeat. America’s historic monuments are our heritage, the complete play, warts and all… the story of America’s great defining epoch. But, it is not just our story. It is a story for the world!

Political correctness in America has metastasized into something resembling the Maoist Cultural Revolution. As the world leader, America’s actions, attitudes and fashions are mimicked everywhere on the globe, whether they are innovative, wholesome, or obscene.

We all perceive the recent iconoclasm of extremists and terrorists in the Middle East as repugnant and a crime against humanity, art, and world history. Not long ago, the West spurned the Cultural Revolution as shameful. Somehow this madness has infected our nation nearly fifty years later, like an Asian flu. Once it hits American shores, this pathogen could become a global contagion that consumes the world’s historic culture and its symbols of heritage and civility.

Rather than accept this disease, Americans should act more civilly and maturely. America’s historic monuments are the visual representations of our American History. We have a responsibility to promote the values of our inalienable rights of speech, writing, assembly and expression. When America constrains these rights, by censorship in whatever form, she does so at her own peril.

Cliff Page, a sculptor, lives and maintains his studio in Portsmouth. 

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15 responses to “Monuments in the Time of National Reconciliation

  1. If wearing pink representations of female genitalia on one’s head is acceptable free speech by “Liberal” standards, why isn’t a traditional art form representing a different time in American History?
    As Cliff Page said: “…Americans should act more civilly and maturely. America’s historic monuments are the visual representations of our American History. We have a responsibility to promote the values of our inalienable rights of speech, writing, assembly and expression. When America constrains these rights, by censorship in whatever form, she does so at her own peril.”

  2. Dear Cliff,

    Good article. The problem is that we are dealing with Marxists who are always on the lookout for “wedge issues” to divide people. They want strife in order to promote their revolution. Isolating them politically will be difficult, especially since so many of them are among the Black leadership which has a vise-like control on the Democratic party, especially in its primaries. Marxists exist elsewhere within that party; they also can be found wherever hip, White “progressives” gather.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  3. Cliff-

    Despite being right of center and a lifelong Virginian I see the US Civil War as a stupid and immoral miscalculation by the Southern elite of their day. I find it tragic and sad rather than heroic and romantic. Despite all that, my only problem with the Civil War statues is that they are far too prevalent relative to other aspects of Virginia’s history and historical Virginians. I can certainly see why the lop-sided focus on Confederate generals is seen as hurtful by African-Americans.

    Take Richmond for example. There are four Civil War military figures and a statue of Arthur Ashe. None of the four Civil War combatants were born in Richmond or from Richmond. Putting aside the late addition of Arthur Ashe (along with the needless controversy that attended that statue) … what’s the point? To celebrate Richmond as the capital of Virginia with statues of famous Virginians? Where’s George Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Paul Jones, Sam Houston, Matthew Ridgeway? Why only Confederate soldiers? If it’s to celebrate Richmond’s legacy as the capital of the Confederacy the first thing I’d say is “Why?”. There’s nothing to celebrate about being the capital of a losing cause fought for an immoral reason which brought untold and unnecessary death and destruction to the very city celebrating it. The second thing I’d ask is where are the non-Virginians? Where is James Longstreet? Where is P.G.T. Beauregard?

    Richmond’s statues don’t celebrate Richmond, they don’t celebrate Virginia, they don’t even celebrate the US Civil War.

    What do they celebrate?

    Is it really hard to understand why African-Americans see those statues as a message of celebrating intolerance rather than history?

    I do agree that the statues are beautiful works of art. Maybe Richmond should steadily add more statues and become the center of Virginia history instead of a showcase for non-Richmond losers (except, of course, Mr Ashe who was quite the winner).

  4. Dear DJ,

    While I happen to agree with your point about secession having been a miscalculation, have you actually read about the numerous sieges of Richmond during the war? The Confederate army was holding off attacks outside of Richmond and Petersburg in 1862 and from 1864-5. They gallantly defended their city from Yankee attacks.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

    • Andrew:

      The German Army gallantly defended Berlin at the end of World War II as well. But, ultimately, they lost and were forced into unconditional surrender. Their lands were occupied by the winning side. I’ve been to Germany many, many times. There are no statues of Nazi generals.

      Luckily for the Confederate leaders the winning side didn’t try them for war crimes and hang them all. If Richmonders really understood history there would be statues of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant too.

      • Dear DJ,

        It’s sad that you are afflicted with our contemporary urge to smear anyone or group that they disagree with as “Nazis.” The South wanted to be left alone. The North would not let them be. The North invaded the South to force them “back” into the Union that Southerners had helped create. Are you aware that Virginia, when it ratified the Constitution stated that it was doing so under the proviso that it could leave the Union at any time? Did you further know that New England came very close to seceding at the Hartford Convention in 1814? Only news of the peace treaty with Britain made that moot (they had lost a lot of trade as part of the trade embargo that the U.S. imposed).

        Sincerely,

        Andrew

  5. At least Old Stonewall risked violating Virginia law by opening a Sunday School for black children. My ancestors in the Civil War wore Union Blue, but some others fought for the British in the Revolution and wound up losing their land and exiled to Canada.

    • And John Singleton Mosby led Grant’s presidential campaign efforts in Virginia. He would later say that the Civil War might have been easier for him than trying to get Virginians to vote for Grant. Mosby was always anti-slavery – from well before the war. They may be good, if misled, men. However, they are not proper historical figures to idolize. Including them in a balanced view of history? Of course. But an avenue in Richmond with nothing but statues of Confederate military men idolizes the wrong thing and provides no real historical context.

      • I don’t disagree with the conclusion that Virginia focuses its statuary collection too heavily on the Civil War. Last month in Barbados, we saw a very good exhibit showing important people in Barbados history and information as to why they were important. The curators did an excellent job in the class of the Smithsonian. A collection like that in a Virginia museum would be a big improvement.

        But, at the same time, I question the moral sincerity of many on the left in Virginia since they recently voted for a woman who viciously attacked other women who had accused her husband of sexual assault, despite later stating and posting that women who make claims of sexual assault should be believed. Funny, but I don’t see protecting a sex abuser as being more noble than hanging on to a failed dream that ended in April 1865.

  6. All the commenters seem to be looking at this as an urban Richmond intellectual issue. There’s more to Virginia than that! People here have familial connections and memories that go back many generations, and at least in the quiet rural communities, those connections are part of their personal history and culture.

    I was not born here, but I’ve come to consider Capt. Sally Tompkins as a neighbor who used to live down the road. She’s one of 12 women to be represented in the Virginia Women’s Monument to be dedicated next year in Richmond. The Times-Dispatch (Dec. 15, 2017) quoted the vice-chair of the Women’s Monument Commission as saying that “Tompkins was not chosen for her service to the Confederacy but for her work ‘in service of saving people’s lives’…” Okay, that covers being P.C., but she was commissioned as an officer so that she could continue her Confederate Hospital in Richmond that she used her entire inheritance to sustain. As the RTD article points out, only 73 of 1333 soldiers under her care died.

    Respect and remembering Sally Tompkins and those she cared for are not memories in celebration of the War, or belief in slavery, but of those who defended their homes and towns. And local people haven’t forgotten that the Northern Army was guilty here of what would be considered war crimes against civilians today. History is not a paragraph in a book here or a statue in Richmond. It’s ingrained in a culture of remembrance, of good and bad.

    • Good point about Sherman. Anyone remember his march through Georgia? His depredations would be considered war crimes today. Should we honor a war criminal?

      Or are war crimes OK if the cause is just?

      Maybe we should just take a chill pill and, in the spirit of national reconciliation that reigned in the late 1800s, honor Sherman as one of the great generals of the Civil War.

      The Civil War statues are great works of art — some of the best public art ever made in the United States. Re-interpreting the statues in light of current-day values is fine. Removing them from the public places where they were designed to be is an act of barbarism.

  7. According to the November 2015 issue of “Smithsonian magazine”, a total of about 450,000 slaves were uprooted and marched very slowly, in groups chained together, between 1810 and 1860, from Alexandria, VA (home of the nation’s largest slave dealer) to Winchester and all the way down the Shenandoah Valley – or some of them on another route thru Richmond and Southside VA – to distant deep-south slave markets such as in Natchez, Mississippi. Not a single historical marker anywhere in America mentions this massive “Trail of Tears.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/slavery-trail-of-tears-180956968 The same article also claims that the city of New Orleans does not have a single historical marker mentioning slavery. Yet, in the 1960’s, the Federal highway department spent thousands to manufacture a sign on I-95 to direct travelers to the burial place of Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm – which was not even close to I-95, but rather down a series of 3 separate country roads.

    • The Smithsonian, an institution I know quite well, has gone through periods of highly politicized, corrupt, and hateful show-off self moralizing history. This frequent fake and distorted history cooked up by the staff of the Smithsonian regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs over Japan being one of many examples. People and institutions have a choice. They can add productively, respectively and responsibility to the dialogue about historical events, or they can engage in shallow, thoughtless hate mongering intended to show off their own virtue while they distort and inflame tragic events painful still painful to all sides, and so destroy history to the great loss of all of us. That is a choice each of us makes. How we come down on that issue never fails to tell us and others much about our character, seriousness, and learning, or lack thereof.

  8. Some slaves at times would die attempting to cross a turbulent river near Radford, VA, on foot, because the slave-drivers were too stingy to pay for ferry transportation. If any single slave in a group would slip and fall into the current, the entire chained group would drown along with them.

    Another curious fact, is that the hundreds of “Johnny Reb” and “Billy Yank” soldier monuments, installed outside various northern and southern court-houses about 100 years ago, were all manufactured nearly identically, by the same foundry in Connecticut. Only the style of cap worn by the soldiers, was sculpted differently.

  9. Correction: The estimate of 450,000 slaves, includes many who were transported south on ocean-going ships. The number who were marched overland on foot – all or part of the way – is much fewer.

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