When Memory Fails, Part 2: Answers

DSC_4072Last week, I published a blog post about a mysterious abandoned monument on the northbound side of Route 1 in New Brunswick, NJ. The monument is a dilapidated granite obelisk in an overgrown clearing just before the Morris Goodkind Bridge spans the Raritan River, accessible only by snaking along a narrow path right on the edge of the highway. It is missing almost all of its identifying inscriptions, with only the haunting legend “THEIR BODIES REST” carved into the rectangular slab at the base of the obelisk. The monument initially caught my attention as a paradoxical memory space, a memorial that has forgotten the reason for its existence. At the end of my last post, I vowed to find out more about how this site came to be, and I have spent much of the last week thinking about it.

But it appears that I was not the only one intrigued by this monument’s story! Last week’s post was one of the most widely read of any that I have posted so far on this blog, and it seems that many of you are also hungry for more information. And as of today, I have much to report, thanks to the assistance of Dr. Robert Belvin, Director of the New Brunswick Free Public Library, who contacted me last week to share what he knew about the monument. Special thanks also go to my father, Donald Beetham, who spent a lot of time poring over old maps to figure out the early history of Route 1.

World War I Memorial Morris Goodkine Bridge Closeup Home News George Pound 1961 05

World War I memorial photographed by George Pound (courtesy of Robert Belvin)

I can now reveal that the monument is a World War I memorial, dedicated on October 13, 1930 in conjunction with the celebration of the city of New Brunswick’s 250th anniversary. The architect was Alexander Merchant, and he worked with designer George B. Howell and sculptor F. Luis Mora. Originally, the obelisk bore a plaque listing the names of 74 New Brunswick soldiers who died in the war. The names were placed below the inscription “THEIR SPIRIT LIVES IN LIGHT.” This completes the thought remaining on the memorial today that has so haunted me: “THEIR BODIES REST” is carved upon a stone meant to represent a sarcophagus (once decorated with bronze swags), while the plaque bearing the names would once have represented an upper register in which the names of the fallen could live on. The tablet was once illuminated by a beam of light emitting from a cast bowl meant to symbolize the “cup of life.” This bowl was missing by 1979, when the Home News published an article decrying the dilapidated state of the monument. The area across the highway that I noticed on my visit to the monument last week was originally laid out as a parking area for visitors – which means that the planners intended for pedestrians to cross Route 1! I don’t think I’ll be attempting that anytime soon.


Postcard depicting the monument as it once appeared, acquired from eBay (Author’s collection)

I was able to confirm much of the information I learned about the monument’s original appearance with a postcard that I acquired from eBay that shows the obelisk with all of its original decoration intact. The seller listed this postcard as dated 1910, but there is no date on the card, and as I now know for certain that the monument was erected in 1930, I know that the listing date is impossible. Once again, a reminder to treat all eBay purchases of antique material with a healthy degree of skepticism!

DSC_1299So what happened in the nearly fifty years between the monument’s dedication and the 1979 article in the Home News decrying its dilapidated condition? I don’t have any direct evidence yet, but I can speculate. Route 1 is a major north-south highway that runs from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine (I once visited Mile 0 of Route 1 in Key West!). Its predecessor was the Atlantic Highway, an auto trail laid out in 1911 that was marked as Route 1 beginning in 1922. The current path of Route 1 through New Brunswick was not possible until 1929, with the completion of the College Bridge, now known as the Morris Goodkind Bridge after its designer. Before the completion of the bridge, this part of New Brunswick was mostly farmland, and a spot along the new highway must have seemed a prime location for residents seeking a site for their World War I monument. Clearly, no one making decisions about the monument at that time predicted the high-speed superhighway that Route 1 would become. This tension between vehicular traffic and monumental siting has become increasingly prominent in the last several decades, as monuments placed in traffic circles and at major intersections have proved to be an obstacle to the pace of modern cars. This juxtaposition is dangerous for the monuments, also, as many memorials are brought down every year due to motor vehicle collisions. In the case of the Route 1 monument, it seems that this site became more and more isolated as the highway widened and cars picked up speed, making it inaccessible to most visitors and ripe for mischief and vandalism.

DSC_4124This is the most likely explanation for the monument’s current state. But thanks to information provided by Robert Belvin, I now know that the monument’s original function as a memorial to the dead of World War I has not been entirely lost. In 2000, Belvin was involved in an effort to rehabilitate the memorial’s bronze plaque and to give it a new home in a space where it is accessible to visitors. The new site is in the center of downtown New Brunswick, where Jersey Avenue splits off from Route 27 (French Street), creating a triangular park. Here, the plaque has been placed on a columnar monument that recalls the original obelisk still moldering on Route 1. The shaft is carved with the same torch an wreath also present on the first version of the monument. And beneath the plaque is a rectangular base carved with the words “THEIR BODIES REST”: thus, the full verse, “THEIR BODIES REST / THEIR SPIRIT LIVES IN LIGHT” is reunited. DSC_4121On the rear of the monument is an additional plaque dedicated to the memory of veterans of subsequent American wars. The plaque has been cleaned and repatinated, and the names of the fallen are once again clearly visible. And the park itself is a bustling hub of activity, a major site for workers’ transportation in and out of the city. If many of these passersby do not necessarily have war memory on their minds – then indeed, in its new site, this memorial plaque faces many of the same challenges of war memorials in town centers across the United States. The memory of these particular soldiers is no longer marooned by highway activity, but instead left to compete for the divided attention of today’s citizens. This is the fate of most war memorials under ordinary circumstances.


But the Route 1 monument retains it emotional pull. Originally dedicated with great fanfare, the site has been so thoroughly stranded by the highway that the decision was ultimately made to abandon it rather than to attempt to rehabilitate it. With the removal of the inscription and plaque to a new location and a replacement column, the memorial function of this site has been transferred elsewhere. Left behind, the obelisk is a haunting relic, a palimpsest of lost hopes and intentions, an anti-monument. And yet, its crumbling stones continue to tug at the mind.


New Article on Confederate Monuments and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

figure 05Another one of my academic publications is finally seeing the light of day! In the latest issue of Public Art Dialogue, released over the weekend, you will find “From Spray Cans to Minivans: Contesting the Legacy of Confederate Soldier Monuments in the Era of ‘Black Lives Matter'”, an article I drafted last summer on the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments in the wake of the tragic shooting in Charleston. The article is part of a special issue of the journal titled “The Dilemma of Public Art’s Permanence,” organized and edited by Erika Doss to explore the afterlives of public artworks in a sphere of ever-changing public opinion. The special issue was inspired by a panel at the College Art Association in 2014, in which I participated. When the Charleston shooting brought the continuing existence of Confederate monuments to the forefront of public consciousness last summer, I already had the existence of this special issue on my radar, and I was grateful for the opportunity to think through some of the issues surrounding these memorials.

Here is the abstract for my article:

In the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, there have been calls to remove or reconsider monuments to the Confederacy in the United States. In addition, monuments have been targeted with graffiti linked to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In order to decide how to deal with these phenomena, communities must understand the link between Confederate symbols, America’s racial past, and the current epidemic of police violence against black Americans.

This essay will explore the history of Confederate monuments from the Civil War to the present, including the relationship between Confederate symbols and the most violent aspects of the struggle for civil rights for all Americans. The discussion will then turn toward Reidsville, North Carolina, where a freak traffic accident in 2011 toppled the local Confederate soldier monument and forced citizens to confront their relationship with Civil War history. In exploring the history of Confederate symbols and the ways in which one town reckoned with them in recent years, this essay will provide necessary guidance for individuals and communities grappling with the legacy of Confederate memory in the age of “Black Lives Matter.”

CLICK HERE to access the article if you have access to journals through an academic institution.

If you would like to read the article but do not have this sort of access, you’re in luck! Taylor and Francis has offered me 50 free eprints of the article, available for a limited time. To download one of these eprints, CLICK HERE.

Citation: Sarah Beetham, “From Spray Cans to Minivans: Contesting the Legacy of Confederate Soldier Monuments in the Era of ‘Black Lives Matter.’” Public Art Dialogue 6, no. 1 (2016): 9-33.

When Memory Fails


On the northbound side of Route 1 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, just before the road crosses the Raritan River at the Morris Goodkind Bridge, there is a tiny plaza sporting a battered obelisk. To reach this plaza by foot, one must park in the parking lot of the nearby Red Carpet Inn and then walk along a narrow dirt path right at the edge of the highway, as cars whizz past along one of Central Jersey’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. The monument sits on a base of three wide granite steps, which rest atop a cracked and weedy pavement. Broken bottles and other detritus hint that the spot might be an occasional hangout for idlers, but for the most part, the site is completely cut off from all but the most determined foot traffic. If ever this monument was intended as a center for community gathering, the use of the land around it has cut it off from almost all human contact.


Notice the monument’s proximity to the edge of the highway – and the sign for the Loews New Brunswick movie theater in the background


But whom was the monument meant to honor? The only inscription left upon the stone is the legend “THEIR BODIES REST,” carved into the granite slab at the base of the obelisk. But above this inscription, it is clear that a bronze plaque originally present on the obelisk has since been removed – a ghost of memory that is present on several of the monument’s faces. What happened to the plaques? Were they removed by authorities for safekeeping as the pace of Route 1 made the monument increasingly inaccessible? Or were they stolen, a casualty of the high prices that can be fetched from selling scrap metal? However they disappeared, the loss of the plaques has created a monument without the ability to remember, a ghost of an intention now out of reach. The obelisk still stands, and by its form it recalls millennia of memorial and civic sites in which this shape pierced the air for some clear purpose. But without words, the stone merely exhorts us to remember – what? THEIR BODIES REST. Whose bodies? The stone no longer can tell.


It gets weirder. Behind the monument, under the shade of trees, is a curved balustrade, and set into the balustrade are four exedrae. An exedra is a semicircular bench often seen as a feature of monuments, outdoor gardens, and other architectural settings. DSC_4093It is a very old form, dating as far back as ancient Greece, where it was considered a suitable site for philosophical conversations. But during the Roman Empire, the exedra became particularly associated with funerary monuments. Placed alongside major thoroughfares, funerary exedrae offered the weary traveler a chance to sit and to take a break from the dusty road. In return for this courtesy, the traveler might take a moment to read the name of the deceased aloud – because in ancient Rome, a part of a man’s spirit remained alive as long as there was someone to speak his name.


View from the exedra

But this is an exedra that can no longer function. The weary travelers careen past at speeds too great to notice this site. And more importantly, there are no names to read, no inscriptions to ponder – except, once again, the haunting THEIR BODIES REST. Their bodies rest, but the monument erected to remember them has forgotten their names.

Route 1 is a major thoroughfare, and since moving back to New Jersey, I have passed this monument at high speeds many times, always intending to stop and look for clues to make sense of the site. Yesterday, I was on my way to see a movie at Loews (X-Men: Apocalypse – meh?), and I finally had time to make the trip. After the movie was over, I decided to take some more pictures of the site from the southbound side, and I made another discovery.


Clearly, this monument site spans both sides of the highway. The retaining wall on the southbound side seems to match the obelisk on the northbound side in age, style, and degree of disrepair. The flagpole at the center of the green space marked out by the retaining wall is on nearly the same axis at the monument, and it is clear that no flag has flown on it in many years. But at one time, probably well before Route 1 became the high-speed artery that it is today, this was a unified and carefully planned memory space. Today, however, the significance of the site is lost.


At the moment, I have many more questions than answers about this site. I’ve done some preliminary research online, and what I’ve found so far suggests that the obelisk was a war memorial, erected at about the same time as the Morris Goodkind Bridge (1929). I do not know this for sure, although my discoveries on the southbound side seem to support it. My interest is piqued, and I want to know more about what happened here, and when it happened. But in the meantime, on this Memorial Day weekend, the monument is an all-but-forgotten token of the moment when collective memory fails.


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!

An Academic Year in Review: Reflections on Teaching and Writing

With another academic year officially behind me, I can finally turn my attention back to full-time writing and reflecting on my efforts with this blog! When I began this WordPress site last semester, I imagined the blog as a place where I would post updates a few times a month on developments in my research and visits to monument sites in my day-to-day life. That proved a little too difficult to sustain during an academic year that became at times unexpectedly intense. Now that I’m looking at three months of writing and research time all to myself, I’m looking forward to beginning this project again! But first, here’s an update of my activities over the last nine months.

caa talk title slideIn fall 2015, I taught the course “Women in American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The course examined the contributions of American women artists to the history of art from the late 18th century to the present. For their semester-long project, I asked teams of students to write or improve Wikipedia articles on American women artists in order to increase the visibility of women on that platform. (Read more about our efforts here.) In all, the students worked on pages for eleven women artists, and the project gave them the opportunity to make a difference in a real-world context. In February 2016, I presented this project at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in a talk titled “Expanding Instructional Resources: Toward an Inclusive American Art Survey.” I have also been asked to write an article based on this talk for the fall issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. I’ll post a notification when that article appears!

DSC_9173In addition to my teaching responsibilities for the fall, I presented papers at two conferences. In early October, I traveled up to Toronto, ON for the American Studies Association, where I presented “Resorting to Reproduction: The Elbert County Confederate Monument and the Failure of Originality.” This was the first time I ever attended the ASA, and I was impressed with the range of panels of interest to scholars of visual and material culture. Later that month, I headed out to Pittsburgh to attend the Southeastern College Art Conference, one of my favorite events every year and a must for researchers in American art. My paper, “Toward a Manly Ideal: Kitson’s Hiker and the Spanish-American War,” marked the first time I have ever spoken in public about my work on Spanish-American War monuments. One of my goals this summer will be to submit some of that material for publication. At the end of October, I relocated from Delaware to New Jersey – a non-academic activity that took up a tremendous amount of my time!

sarah gettysburg tour

Touring Gettysburg with graduate students from Temple University (Photo: Peter Han-Chih Wang)

This spring, I took on a great deal of teaching: four classes at three different schools, all of which were some distance from my new home (#adjunctlife!). Two of the courses were repeats from last spring: “American Art to 1945” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and “Civil War Stuff: Writing History through Objects” at the University of Delaware. But I was also offered the chance to take on two new courses at Temple University: “World Photography Since 1839,” and “The Civil War in American Art,” a graduate seminar. Needless to say, my spring semester was quite hectic – but full of rewarding moments! Highlights included introducing my traveling photography collection to all four classes, facilitating student-led discussion in PAFA’s galleries, learning about living history and reenacting from guest speaker Audrey Scanlan-Teller, and comparing nineteenth-century printing technologies in UD’s museum collection. Oh, and also there was one bucket-list experience: in April, I took my Temple graduate students out to Gettysburg for a one-day tour of the battlefield! This spring in the Mid-Atlantic has had more than its share of rainy days, but our trip to Gettysburg was warm, sunny, and productive.


Richard S. Greenough, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott, marble, 1867 (PAFA)

With that teaching load, I spent less time on other pursuits than I would have liked, but in March I gave a talk at PAFA to the Art at Lunch crowd. In “‘Dear Mamma you must let me go’: Memory and Loss in Post-Civil War American Art,” I placed the story of Huntington Frothingham Wolcott (previously mentioned here and here) in the context of post-Civil War mourning culture. This is another project that I hope to develop further in the future, and public talks are useful in pushing me toward that goal.

I think this brings us up to date on all of my activities over the last several months. This summer, I plan to work daily on various writing and research projects, and I have a pretty ambitious slate of plans to complete by the end of August. I have a few publications in the pipeline that will be appearing over the summer, including a pair of pedagogical essays and an article on Confederate monuments and #BlackLivesMatter, and I’ll post links to them as they appear. I’ll also be giving a few public talks, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for interesting monuments and other works of art as I go about my business. Here’s to a productive summer!

On Academic Writing Groups and Other Support

bookpicRecently I have been blessed with a number of sources of writing support that have helped me maintain my productivity over the summer. Both in person with fellow academics and online with Twitter, I have found a community of writers brimming with ideas on how to keep the words coming. This post is dedicated to all those who have helped me to build momentum over the past few months.

For the past two weeks, I have been meeting weekly with a group of fellow art historians to talk about our writing process. We were inspired to create this group from a number of sources. First, there was an excellent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Joli Jensen on the importance of writing support to keep academic writers accountable and productive. In the article, Jensen describes a type of writing support group that focuses not on content critique, but on setting goals and establishing an effective writing process. She writes:

What academics need from a writing group is not criticism but, rather, encouragement and accountability. We need advice on overcoming the obstacles that keep us from writing in the first place. We need help getting our writing done — not just planned and agonized over. Productivity techniques often work best when someone is there reminding us of them. And committing to an academic writing group that focuses on setting regular writing goals helps hold us accountable. – See more at: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/955-don-t-go-it-alone#sthash.90kdK39u.dpuf
Our new writing group is based on this model, and bolstered by similar advice offered by the excellent Paul J. Silvia in his classic on academic writing, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Our meetings are structured around two key elements:
  • We keep a notebook where each member can write her personal goal for the next week of writing; and
  • Each week, one member circulates a short piece about some aspect of the writing process for group discussion.

So far, our meetings have covered methods for building a daily writing process, the travails of organizing mounds of research into coherent articles or chapters, ways to get unstuck when writing is not coming freely, and many other topics. It is not yet clear whether we’ll be able to keep up the frequency of meetings once the fall semester starts, as some of us are heading back into the classroom while others are embarking on fellowships in other states, but for now, the group is a source of inspiration.

I have also been lucky to tap into online writing communities with Twitter, both academically and with fiction writers. I am deeply indebted to the writers who tweet under the hashtags of the monthly Writing Challenge. These writers have the daily goal of producing 500 words or spending one hours on the editing process. Writers who succeed tweet their progress with the monthly hashtag (this month’s is #JulyWritingChallenge), and members congratulate each other on their success. I began participating in the challenges at the beginning of June, and while I have not managed to hit the benchmarks every day, I have been very happy with my overall progress, and I have been overwhelmed with the warmth and inclusiveness of this writing community.

Likewise, I have enjoyed following the conversations under the hashtags #acwri and #GetYourManuscriptOut, where academics herald each other’s successes and offer support and encouragement along the difficult road of academic publishing. This community has given me the courage to tackle difficult edits and send manuscripts out, and for this I am grateful.

If you are struggling at some stage in your writing process, I highly recommend adopting one or more of these methods to support you as you pursue your goals! Academic writing (or any other form of writing) can be a lonely road, but discussions with other writers can make a great deal of difference.

Old Friends: The Minute Man in Concord, MA

I’ve been staying out in Lincoln, MA during my two-week research stint at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and in honor of my last night in town, I drove over to the Minute Man National Historical Park to visit Daniel Chester French’s 1875 Minute Man. I have a lot of personal history with this sculpture: it was the main focus of my dissertation chapter on post-Civil War monuments to Revolutionary War soldiers, and I’m hoping that an article I’ve written based on that chapter will find a home in an academic journal soon. On this cool, overcast summer evening, I found the statue looking as handsome as ever, and for once I had the site all to myself for some quiet contemplation.

Daniel Chester French, Minute Man, Concord, MA, 1875

Daniel Chester French, Minute Man, Concord, MA, 1875

This statue was the first major work by Daniel Chester French, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated American sculptors of its era. Sculpted when he was just twenty-three, the statue betrays some youthful mistakes in modeling, and there are some angles from which it looks distinctly awkward. But from this particular spot, the young soldier vibrates with youthful vigor and agility. The strong diagonals of the musket, the strap of the ammunition bag, the handle of the plow, and the gracefully extended right leg all contribute to a dynamic forward-facing directionality. And from this angle, the upturned brim of the hat adds an air of insouciance to the figure.

Before sculpting the Minute Man, French was an aspiring sculptor making small tabletop figural groups for sale in Parian porcelain. When conceiving the statue, the Concord monument committee initially envisioned a granite statue that could have been one of the many dotting the American landscape after the Civil War. But in French’s young hands, the statue became something else entirely: a first entry in what would prove to be an exciting artistic career. After he delivered the Minute Man to Concord, French sailed for Italy to further his artistic training, and this first major work opened many doors for his advancement.

Detail of Daniel Chester French, Minute Man, Concord, MA, 1875

Detail of Daniel Chester French, Minute Man, Concord, MA, 1875

There is much more to the story, and I hope to share it all someday. I have thought a lot about how this statue honoring vigorous youth, sculpted in honor of the centennial of the battles of Lexington and Concord, is related to the sectional crisis that had occurred only ten years before. For me, this electrifying sculpture of a Revolutionary soldier would not have been possible without the shadow of the Civil War, which filled American hearts and minds with images of young men going to war. The Revolutionary men who answered the call at Lexington and Concord were all in their graves by the time this statue was dedicated, and those present at the ceremony who remembered them knew them as frail elders. But the statue pulses with the energy of a generation that had seen its own bitter conflicts, and that went to war with a notion of completing unfinished Revolutionary business. As I pursue further writing and publishing on this statue, I hope to advance this interpretation of the Minute Man‘s story.

A Walk in Cambridge and Mount Auburn

Cyrus and Darius Cobb, designers, Civil War Memorial, Cambridge Common, MA

Cyrus and Darius Cobb, designers, Civil War Memorial, Cambridge Common, MA, 1870

My research stint in Boston hit a slight bump this week in the form of a flat tire – one of four tires that I probably should have replaced before driving all the way from Delaware to Massachusetts. But I was able to turn this inconvenience into an advantage by dropping my car off in Cambridge for service while I went to work at the Massachusetts Historical Society. On the way to retrieve my car yesterday afternoon, I made a few stops to photograph monuments, and then went on for a brief visit in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The first stop on my journey was Cambridge Common, where I paused to photograph a Civil War soldier monument designed by Cyrus and Darius Cobb and erected in 1870. This elaborate granite pile honors the soldiers and sailors of Cambridge who perished during the war, each of whom are named on bronze plaques on the base. In the center of the architectural structure is a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and added to the structure in 1887. Materials I’ve consulted at the MHS suggest that the alcove where the Lincoln statue stands was once a source of disagreement for members of the committee who erected it, as different members suggests various types of statuary to fill the niche. I hope to pursue this line of inquiry further as an element of my book project.

Prince Hall Monument, Cambridge Common, erected 2010

Prince Hall Monument, Cambridge Common, erected 2010

After visiting this monument, I wandered around the Common a little bit to look at some of the other memorials. One of the themes of my book project will be the ways in which Civil War monuments were often placed in civic spaces that became magnets for other types of memorial sculpture. I hope to think further about whether this activity of adding additional monuments to a space alters or colors the meaning of monuments that are already present. A potentially potent example is this monument erected in 2010 to Prince Hall, an African-American abolitionist and community leader in colonial Boston who founded the African Grand Lodge of North America. The five polished granite plinths are engraved with words by and about Hall, decrying the dehumanizing evils of slavery and promoting efforts to abolish it. This new monument claims a portion of the Cambridge Common to call attention to a narrative of abolition that centers on the freedmen who worked tirelessly to bring it about. Placed at a slight remove from a Civil War monument featuring the Great Emancipator, this memorial brings additional shades of meaning.

Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, Spanish American War Memorial (The Hiker), Cambridge, MA

Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, Spanish-American War Memorial (The Hiker), Cambridge, MA

As I left Cambridge Common and walked down Concord Avenue to pick up my car, I stumbled upon one of the many casts of Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson’s Hiker that appear throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere in the United States. These monuments to citizen soldiers of the Spanish-American War appeared in one of my dissertation chapters, and I am currently working on shaping that chapter into an article to send to a journal. Personally, I am struck by the sheer physicality of Kitson’s soldier, especially in comparison to some of the more slender soldiers that grace Civil War monuments. And I can’t help but wonder whether her emphasis on heroic masculinity was meant as an antidote to the real experiences of Spanish-American War soldiers, who perished in droves from malaria and other tropical fevers in Cuba, the Philippines, and stateside camps in Georgia and Florida. Over the past few days, I’ve been reading accounts of Massachusetts regiments deployed to Cuba during the war, and all of them describe a miserable ocean voyage, a few days of frenzied campaigning, and weeks of suffering in pestilential camps – a far cry from the heroic endeavor romanticized by men like Theodore Roosevelt. Kitson’s burly Hiker restores the romantic notion of war that the realities of 1898 eroded.

Martin Milmore, American Sphinx, Mount Auburn Cemetery

Martin Milmore, American Sphinx, Mount Auburn Cemetery

After picking up my car (four new tires!), I drove over to Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831 as America’s first garden cemetery. Mount Auburn is a magical spot for its landscape, its sculpture, and its history, all of which contribute to a deeply moving experience.

I first stopped in front of the American Sphinx, Martin Milmore’s 1872 Civil War memorial carved at the behest of Mount Auburn founder Dr. Jacob Bigelow. I last visited Mount Auburn in 2007, when I was working on my first paper on American monuments at the graduate level and chose the Sphinx as my subject. I don’t think I was quite able to tease out all the implications of carving a giant Sphinx in honor of Civil War soldiers back then, and I still don’t think I’ve figured it all out. In the meantime, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about other works by Martin Milmore, especially his Roxbury Soldier Monument for Forest Hills Cemetery, replicated in several other locations. As a research subject, Milmore is somewhat Sphinx-like himself – he left almost no written record, and died under shady circumstances at the age of 39. For me, the mystery may be part of the allure.

Martin Milmore, Angel of the Resurrection, Mount Auburn Cemetery

Martin Milmore, Angel of the Resurrection, Mount Auburn Cemetery

While at Mount Auburn, I took the opportunity to photograph another statue by Milmore, his Angel of the Resurrection carved for the Coppenhagen family plot in 1872. While working on the dissertation, I spent some time thinking about whether or not Civil War soldier statues could be understood as akin to cemetery angels, and I still think there may be something to this idea. Both were often mass-produced, carved by artisans whose names are often lost to history and marketed through catalogs. Both are also easily recognizable figures that communicate abstract concepts through the human form. And both could be interpreted as explicitly funerary – the cemetery angel is placed on a grave, and the soldier monument is often a placeholder for graves on distant shores that cannot be easily visited. Martin Milmore was known primarily for his soldier monuments, but the fact that he also made at least one cemetery angel is, to me, suggestive. His involvement in these various memorial projects is one of many indicators of the ways in which public commemoration intersected with the funerary sphere in the nineteenth century.

Grave of Lieutenant Huntington Frothingham Wolcott (right)

Grave of Lieutenant Huntington Frothingham Wolcott (right)

But my primary reason for taking a trip to Mount Auburn was to visit the grave of Lieutenant Huntington Frothingham Wolcott, with whose letters I spent so many poignant hours at the Massachusetts Historical Society last week. As I mentioned in a post last week, Wolcott was a young soldier who served only four months in the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry before dying of malarial fever on June 9, 1865, at the age of nineteen. In letters to his parents written between February and May 1865, he described the sometimes grueling pace of his life in the army, his impressions of the Virginia countryside in early spring, his first foray into battle at Five Forks, his joy at the surrender of Lee’s army, his grief at the assassination of President Lincoln, and many other topics. While reading and transcribing the letters of this young man, I began to feel a sense of affection for him, and it felt right to visit his gravesite to process some of these emotions.

Jacob Bigelow, designer, Washington Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery

Jacob Bigelow, designer, Washington Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery

My final stop in Mount Auburn was the Washington Tower designed by Jacob Bigelow and erected between 1852 and 1854. My experience climbing to the top of this tower was almost the exact opposite of my climb up the Bunker Hill Monument last week. This tower is not nearly as tall as the one at the Bunker Hill battlefield, but it is placed at the top of a high hill that offers a magnificent view of greater Boston. Also, I had the tower to myself, so I was able to enjoy the view in solitude. There are two viewing platforms on the tower: one at the circle of battlements about two thirds of the way up the tower, and the other at the very top, which is open to the sky. I have already mentioned my fear of heights, and the experience of emerging from the darkness into the sunlight at the top of this tower was a little extreme, especially with the brisk wind threatening rain that buffeted me as I stood at the rampart. But the view from the top is sublime, certainly one of the best in Boston and to my mind better than the experience I had at Bunker Hill, especially with the structure being so open. Given how deserted it was, it seems this may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Boston area.

I’ll finish this post with one image that doesn’t even begin to do justice to the view:


Two more days of research, and then I’ll be on my way back to Delaware and back to work on my various manuscripts!

Monument Bucket List: Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, MA

Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, MA

Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, MA

I’m currently up in Boston for a two-week stay to finish out the remainder of my time as a Suzanne and Caleb Loring Fellow on the Civil War, Its Origins, and Consequences at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Athenaeum. I’m spending my last two weeks at the MHS revisiting some great material I unearthed during my previous visit last September, which is keeping me quite busy. But yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting a site that has long been on my mind: the Bunker Hill Monument on the site of the famous Revolutionary battle. This 221-ft obelisk was erected between 1823 and 1842 and dedicated on June 17, 1843. Inside, there are 294 steps leading up to a small landing with four windows that offer a remarkable view of the city of Boston and its harbor. The monument was erected after years of fundraising by an extremely dedicated Bunker Hill Monument Association, and I often come across records of the association’s activities when I am conducting research on my Civil War statues. Today, the monument may seem rather commonplace – one of many tall obelisks honoring important people or events in American history with a view of the surrounding landscape. But the Bunker Hill Monument is one of the first of its kind, and thus served as a model for the others that followed.

I left the MHS at about 3pm yesterday to take the T across town before the monument closed at 5pm. When I arrived, I obtained a free ticket for a 4pm climb at the Bunker Hill Museum across the street from the monument, and then made my way to the base of the obelisk. Inside, the spiral staircase is narrow and steep, with every 25th step numbered to encourage climbers to make it all the way to the top. About halfway up, I began to regret the fact that I haven’t been exercising lately. By the time I got to the top, I was huffing and puffing, but I was rewarding with a terrific view.

View from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument (slightly smudgy due to protective glass)

View from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument (slightly smudgy due to protective glass)

While I was admiring the view, the little room at the top of the monument grew very crowded, as several people who seemed to be part of a tour came up shortly behind me. Because of this, I left a little sooner than I might have otherwise, and encountered many fellow climbers on the way back down the stairs, waiting for their chance to get a look at the view. This part was a little panic-inducing, as I am both claustrophobic and afraid of heights, but I have found that I am willing to push a lot of my own phobic boundaries when monuments are involved.

William Wetmore Story, Colonel William Prescott, 1880

William Wetmore Story, Colonel William Prescott, 1880

Outside, I encountered a fine statue of Colonel William Prescott by the American expatriate sculptor William Wetmore Story. Erected in 1880, this memorial to the commander of American forces at Bunker Hill depicts him holding out a hand to stay his troops’ fire until the enemy approached near enough to reveal “the whites of their eyes.” The sword in his hand is modeled on the original artifact, passed down through the Prescott family and now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I am currently a fellow. One thing that constantly amazes me when I conduct research in and around Boston is the interconnectedness of leading Boston families and institutions. For instance, I am currently working with letters written by Huntington Frothingham Wolcott, a Civil War soldier who joined the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry in February 1865 and followed the regiment through the desperate last days of the war: the battle of Five Forks, Appomattox, and Lincoln’s assassination, only to die on June 9, 1865 from malaria contracted during his time in the army. His younger brother, Roger Wolcott, eventually married Edith Prescott, a great-granddaughter of Captain William Prescott. And this is only one of many family connections I have found among the various subjects of my research.

DSC_3795And to end this post, here I am next to the Bunker Hill Monument. It was a lovely afternoon jaunt, with beautiful weather, and I spent a few pleasant moments sitting on the grass before I departed. I expect that there will be more Boston monument adventures before I head back to Delaware.

Thoughts on This Transformative Week in Civil War Memory

Confederate Monument, Thomaston, Georgia

Confederate Monument, Thomaston, Georgia

I am still reeling from the past week’s developments: the massive shift in public opinion regarding the meaning and display of the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbols. I have been studying Civil War monuments for much of the past eight years, and I have thought about Civil War memory in one way or another pretty much every day since 2010, when I finished my Ph.D. qualifying exams and began working on my dissertation. Through those years, I have often grappled with the problem of Confederate memory – as a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee raised in New Jersey, I have often had little sympathy for a cause devoted entirely to the maintenance and extension of slavery. But while I often found it difficult to immerse myself in the Confederate cause and the dark days of white supremacist terrorism that broke out after the failure of Reconstruction, I found the issues raised by Confederate monuments to be both intellectually compelling and deeply troubling.


Elbert County Confederate Monument, or “Dutchy,” Elberton, GA

My current book project, tentatively titled Army of the Dead: Civil War Soldier Monuments and the Politics of Permanence, is a step forward from a dissertation that focused on means of production and cultural resonance of nineteenth-century soldier monuments. The book will focus specifically on moments since the end of the Civil War when soldier monuments have been vandalized, damaged or altered: communities’ responses to these moments of rupture speak volumes about our nation’s continued struggle with the meaning of the war. I was first inspired to investigate this path when I came across the story of the first Elbert County Confederate Monument, erected in 1898 in Elberton, GA, and torn down by an angry populace just two years later. Pejoratively called “Dutchy” for his supposedly Germanic facial features, the statue was pulled from his pedestal in a nighttime act of mischief later characterized as a lynching, all for the crime of sullying the Confederate soldier’s memory with his pathetic appearance. For the purpose of my dissertation chapter on Confederate monuments, this bizarre tale served as a framing device, introducing the themes of political uncertainty, racial strife, and materiality that would run through my writing on the subject. But after spending some time with the story of “Dutchy,” a strange thing happened: more and more tales of deliberately or accidentally damaged monuments kept surfacing in my research. And as I worked these tales into conference papers and public talks, I found that I enjoyed working with these fractured objects, and that audiences responded to them, too. When it came time to begin revising the dissertation as a book project, it was clear that this was the direction to pursue.

Confederate Monument, Berryville, VA

Confederate Monument, Berryville, VA

And so, I have sat and watched this week’s developments with amazement. I couldn’t believe that Gov. Nikki Haley advocated for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, or that Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the flags quietly furled two days later. I was even more shocked when Walmart, Sears, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and even the National Park Service all agreed to pull merchandise bearing the Confederate flag. I understand the sentiments that led taggers to target monuments in Charleston, Baltimore, Richmond, and Memphis with the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” And then there have been the calls to dismantle Confederate monuments entirely – Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans is all for it, but Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts argue in another direction for the Atlantic. My astonishment at this week’s developments is not due to any affection for Confederate symbols – rather, I did not expect a sea change on the Lost Cause and its visual culture to come so immediately and completely. As a result, this week has been a wonderful and astounding time to be a historian of Civil War memory.

Elbert County Confederate Monument, or "Dutchy," Elbeton, GA

Elbert County Confederate Monument, or “Dutchy,” Elbeton, GA

I am glad to see so many Americans repudiating the Confederate flag. The prominence of this symbol has long bothered me, and I have found defenses of its use to be disingenuous at best. The recent spate of graffiti is also, in my mind, understandable. While we often think of the monuments in our public spaces as immutable, unchanging hunks of stone, little more than furniture in our civic landscapes, we must remember that choosing whom to memorialize in a town square is a political act with serious implications. Tagging a monument that could be interpreted as a symbol of oppression with a slogan naming that oppression should also be interpreted as a serious political act, not dismissed as vandalism or a meaningless prank. These monuments to Confederate leaders and the rank-and-file soldiers who supported them were not idly placed on the lawns of Southern courthouses and state capitols. They were meant to mark the most visible spaces of government power in order to further an agenda that the Civil War failed to stamp out, and any speech that aims to point this out should not be discounted. And yet, when it comes to the question of removal or destruction, I am torn. Part of this is that I am an art historian, and my training generally pushes me toward preservation. Part of it is that I have studied these monuments for years, and I have a weird soft spot for them (I certainly felt an odd attachment forming the first time I gazed into “Dutchy’s” glazed eyes). Part of it is that I know how many there are – at least 500 soldier monuments and many more statues of Confederate leaders – and I still find it hard to imagine the current climate sustaining a will to track them all down. But most importantly, I hope that if anything does happen to these monuments, that it is done through community consensus that promotes healing. If any monuments are altered or removed, I hope that it sparks a conversation that leads people to listen to one another with compassion.

Caspar Buberl, Confederate Monument, Alexandria, VA

Caspar Buberl, Confederate Monument, Alexandria, VA

Over the years, I have read about many forms of iconoclasm and removal of state symbols after the fall of a hated regime. One of my favorite is Memento Park in Budapest, a collection of Communist-era statues from around Hungary removed from their original context and placed in an outdoor museum. Here, visitors can view the visual relics of Hungary’s past. The works of art are preserved but separated from the contexts that once made them powerful, and additional installations by contemporary artists comment on the statues and on the nation’s collective memory. Visitors to the park often pose for silly photos with the monuments, imitating the statues’ exaggerated poses or performing other ironic acts. I wonder whether a strategy like this one could ever work for Confederate monuments – preserving the works of art, but allowing for education and the kind of play that robs these symbols of their power. Personally, I’d love to put bunny ears on Nathan Bedford Forrest. Could we agree on something like this? I’m not sure yet what will happen – I imagine that we will have a better idea how things will turn out once the dust settles after this incredibly emotional week. But in the meantime, I will keep watching and recording what’s happening, because this feels like a new era in our remembrance of the Civil War.

For a brief interview on soldier monuments that I recorded with Larry Mendte of “The Delaware Way” before this week’s developments, click HERE.

All photographs of Confederate monuments taken by Sarah Beetham.