A Neighborhood Monument Walk

Ah, it feels good to be out for the summer with three months of time to work on my research and writing projects! This morning, to celebrate my newfound freedom (and a welcome break in the rainy weather), I took a walk out my front door to visit some neighborhood monuments that I’ve spotted from my car window over the past few months. I’ve recently relocated from Wilmington, DE to Somerset, NJ – and I’m now living within a short distance of the town where I grew up (Highland Park, NJ), my alma mater (Rutgers) and even the hospital where I was born (St. Peter’s University Hospital)! The monuments below can all be seen along Easton Avenue in New Brunswick.

20160523_125323The first stop along my walk today was the Maine Monument, dedicated to three New Brunswick residents who died in the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. The monument was originally placed in front of the Court House in New Brunswick in 1899, but was relocated to the Easton Avenue entrance of Buccleuch Park in 1958. As you can see from the photograph at left, the monument consists of a tall, rough-hewn granite stele (well over six feet in height) set on one side with a bronze panel depicting the Maine in peaceful times.20160523_125652 The opposite side of the stele features an inscription naming the sailors who perished in the sinking. Also included here is a howitzer captured from the Cabanas Fortress in Havana Harbor during the course of the Spanish-American War. With the inclusion of the howitzer, the monument is part cenotaph and part trophy: naming fallen soldiers whose remains probably lie far from this location, while showcasing an object taken during the course of the military action waged in response to their deaths. This mix of messages is not uncommon in monuments to the Spanish-American War, a war fought entirely overseas for mostly imperial aims that saw eight soldiers perish from disease for every one who succumbed to wounds on the battlefield.

20160523_125601For this reason, stopping to visit this monument proved to be a fitting beginning for my summer of writing. One of the pieces that I currently have in development concerns Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson’s Hiker, a stalwart bronze soldier of the Spanish-American War first erected in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1906, and subsequently copied in more than fifty locations across the United States. Created a few crucial years after New Brunswick’s Maine monument, Kitson’s Hiker is a strapping muscle man that embodies all of the war’s triumphs and none of its darker aspects. As I work my way back into this material, I will keep this local monument in mind.

20160523_125052My visit to the site of the New Brunswick Maine monument yielded one other notable phenomenon. To the left of the memorial to the soldiers of the Maine were two additional markers, one honoring soldiers of Company E of the 114th Infantry, 44th Division of the New Jersey National Guard who fought in World War II, and the other naming several Catholic War Veterans of St. Sebastian Post 405 who perished in World War II and the Korean War. The latter tablet is dated 1958, the year that the Maine monument was relocated from the Court House to Buccleuch Park, and it would be interesting to know more about what led to the relocation of the monument and to the appearance of the additional markers. 20160523_125200My larger book project, Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Citizen Soldier, explores the processes by which monuments are sometimes damaged or altered during the course of their time in public life, whether through accidental or purposeful means. One of the chapters concerns revision, or the series of processes by which a monument or its site may be altered, moved, removed, or amended in order to change its meaning or allow for additional voices to be recognized. In thinking about this series of forces, I often wonder about the ways in which a war memorial honoring the soldiers of one war often begins to attract tributes to veterans of other wars, and how sites in which war in remembered eventually tend to take on multiple meanings and chronologies. I did not necessarily expect to find this particular phenomenon on my walk today, but I was glad for the opportunity to reflect on it.

20160523_113424aThe last monument site I encountered today is in a bit of a different category: the fireman’s memorial. This unusual memorial sits at the corner of Easton Avenue and Wyckoff Street in New Brunswick. Erected in 1931, it consists of a bronze statue of a firefighter displayed underneath a pergola with Corinthian columns. The statue stands atop a rough-hewn granite base carved with the words, “VOLUNTEER / AND EXEMPT FIREMEN / 1747-1941 / ERECTED AD 1931.” At the moment, I do not know any more about the circumstances surrounding this particular monument than I can see in that inscription.20160523_113559 But I’ve long found firefighters’ memorials intriguing for their potential relationship with the citizen soldier monuments that form the basis of much of my research and writing. Both tend to feature single statues of generic figures meant to stand in for a particular population. Both have at times been mass-produced and sold in catalogues. Both allude to the virtues of self-sacrifice in the service of the good of the community, and as such both serve as didactic exemplars of civic responsibility when placed in public settings. When I think about my bucket list of future research projects, firefighters’ memorials definitely appear on the list, and I would love to learn more about them.

I hope this will be the first of many posts this summer concerning local monuments and memorials – I’m working on a list of sites to visit over the next few months that will provide fodder for my musings. Looking forward to further conversations about local memory!

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