Civil War Memorials and Monuments

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Hundreds of monuments were erected in the decades following the American Civil War, 1861–1865. They stand in small county seats and rural cemeteries across the eastern United States as well as on New York's Fifth Avenue, Richmond's Monument Avenue, the Boston Common, and Arlington National Cemetery. Their complexity and variety are testimony to a conflict whose causes and meaning still defy conclusive analysis. Some broad contours of development can be traced in the elegies and monuments erected by local communities, however. In the fifty-year span 1870–1920, the emphasis shifted from mourning and bereavement to reconciliation and celebration.


The practical necessity of retrieving, identifying, and burying the dead occasioned memorials in the first three decades after the war. The monuments, usually erected in cemeteries, promulgated defiance and pathos, using the customary mourning symbols of the Victorian era—wreaths, scrollwork, and inscriptions of poetry. The scale and degree of ornamentation varied, but the most common statue was an obelisk, a tapered, four-sided stone shaft with a pyramidal peak. Sculptures of ordinary soldiers were erected beginning in the 1870s. The representative soldier was neither aloof nor abstract and "hardly seemed suited for a war memorial," Foster observes, standing "at ease, with his rifle resting on the ground and his arms resting on it. He seemed anything but a dashing, daring knight and, in fact, hardly seemed martial at all" (p. 129). The result was a relaxed iconoclasm—an enormous effort to create an appearance of indifference—a soldier who was un-martial, sometimes slouching, usually at parade rest. This was utterly appropriate as an American memorial to endurance and confidence. Defeat, even death, was not final: personified as the soldier, "he" was still comfortably present. Memories would fade and arguments over interpretations of the war would continue, but these stone or metal evocations achieved the aim of their sponsors and designers by preserving the illusion that the past was not dead.

The Confederate battle flag was a common symbol in the South, but religious symbolism often took precedence. The Judeo-Christian narrative of life, death, and resurrection informed perceptions of the history of the Confederacy and of the service and deaths of so many Confederate soldiers. It seems it provided sufficient rationale to southerners as they endured what the Buchanan, Virginia, monument calls the "Dark Reconstruction" period and took solace in the prospect that God would ultimately administer justice. Deo Vindice (God Is Our Protector), the national motto for the Confederacy established in 1862, also served as a rallying cry and credo. In time, the phrase was inscribed on thousands of monuments and tombstones.

The rhetorical challenge of northern monuments was simpler. The military results of the war were beyond dispute, while its justification was readily captured in succinct abstractions that balanced achievement and mourning. Typical was the Mifflin, Pennsylvania, courthouse elegy erected in 1870, which declares "Victory" but announces that it stands "In Memory of the Soldiers from Juniata County Pa. who Died in the War of the Great Rebellion." Equally taciturn is the White Plains, New York, monument of 1872 to its soldiers "Who Died in the Service of Their Country in the Civil War."

Solemn, restrained texts were common on both sides. The North Carolina obelisk at Winchester, Virginia's Stonewall Confederate Cemetery was erected with a two-initial, two-word inscription: "-NC-Confederate Dead." The omissions are notable: three sides of the monument are blank, North Carolina is not spelled out, and no sentiments, tributes, or apologetics are expressed. The 1874 monument to the Union soldier on the Antietam battlefield at Sharpsburg, Maryland, is immense. The presiding cemetery monument, sculpted in bronze and granite, weighs 250 tons, with a base surmounted by a prototypical soldier over twenty-one feet tall standing at parade rest. The inscription, in contrast, is strikingly taciturn: "Not for Themselves But for Their Country—September 17, 1862."

As early as the 1870s, the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the centennial of the American Revolution gave rise to a semblance of reconciliation between North and South. In the South, that reconciliation was qualified with—ironically—patriotic justifications for the war of secession. The eulogists of the Confederate monument in Harrisonburg, Virginia, declared that the southern lives sacrificed "vindicated the principles of 1776." The accompanying inscriptions—"Success is not Patriotism. Defeat is not Rebellion"—affirmed the faith of a shadow community of defiance and dissent. The South's defeat could not be reversed by an act of rhetoric, but in these texts the war was justified as a veritable second American Revolution. That stance—that the war was a lost but righteous cause—gradually gained favor. The former Confederate general Wade Hampton was unabashed in a dedication address at the Warrenton, Virginia, Confederate monument on 12 June 1877:

Why should we admit we are in the wrong? . . . If the principles which justified the first revolution were true in 1776, they were no less true in that of 1861. . . . If Washington was a patriot, Lee cannot have been a rebel; if the grand enunciation of the truths of the Declaration of Independence made Jefferson immortal, the observance of them cannot make Davis a traitor. (Warman, p. 68)

In general, however, it is the memory of those who fought that remains prominent in northern and southern monuments. Elaborations are few, justifications terse. The 1876 monument in Cortland County, New York, for example, is simply a "Centennial Offering" in "Memory of Those Who Fought in Defense of the Union." The Grand Army of the Republic memorial in Woodlawn Cemetery (1885) south of Syracuse is simply declared to be "In Memory of Our Dead Comrades." The Canton, New York, monument in the town square merely states, "In Memoriam 1861–1865."


The peak of monument development occurred in the reconciliation or celebration era. By 1914, Charles Reagan Wilson notes, "over a thousand monuments existed in the South," and "many battlefields had been set aside as pilgrimage sites containing holy shrines" (p. 178). The Gettysburg battlefield would have nearly thirteen hundred monuments erected by 1920, most of them northern. The semicentennial of the war took place in the years 1911–1915 and served as an impetus; so too were the nationalist fervor aroused during the Spanish-American War and World War I and the aging or passing of the first generation of descendants. County seats, urban centers, city parks, and battlefields were chosen as sites more often than cemeteries. Political motives superseded religious paeans. Many monuments were funded by state legislatures; some even had federal support. Women's groups such as the South's Ladies Memorial Association or the United Daughters of the Confederacy had already sponsored many of the earlier monuments, but by the turn of the century they were more frequently the primary organizers.

The manufacture of the monuments was also distinctive. The inscriptionists drew from the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome for their tributes and elegies; the scale and design of the monuments attest to the influence of Egyptian revivalism. Some were handcrafted by local artisans; other designers, for example, F. William Sievers and Edward Valentine, had national or international reputations. With time, the erection of monuments became an industry. Soderberg writes that before the war "only four companies made statuary in the U.S.[;] by 1915 there were sixty-three" (p. xxv). Still, community distinctions are preserved. "Far from being produced on an assembly line, those statues were individually made, usually using a standard model, which could be changed to suit the [sponsoring] organization's committee" (p. xxiv). The Tappahannock, Virginia, courthouse monument is inscribed with a roster of 772 names; that at Hanover with 1,078 names; while the Charlottesville university cemetery lists 1,096 soldiers. Opulence was often the order of the day. Gilded Age satisfaction is no more evident in northern elegies than in the gold-clad equestrian monument to the Union general William T. Sherman, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and located on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The 1903 statue epitomized northern sentiments of "glorious contentment," to quote Stuart McConnell's title. A beaux arts extravagance marked the enormous domed Pennsylvania monument at Gettysburg. The elegy, dedicated in 1910, is sixty-nine feet tall, surmounted by the bronze goddess Victory, and adorned with four bas-reliefs and eight bronze statues. At the base, 86 bronze tablets list 34,530 names: Pennsylvania's "Sons Who Fought for the Preservation of the Union."

Many of the monuments erected during the semi-centennial of the war were celebratory. Apologetics and nationalist aims had less standing; sentiment and grandeur prevailed. The Front Royal, Virginia, monument, dedicated 4 July 1911, is lavish in its visual adornment and textual tributes to its Confederate soldiers: "To those Who Gave Much and those Who Gave All." The trend toward sentimentalism and wistfulness would continue. The courthouse memorial at Monterey, Virginia, was dedicated 4 July 1919 as a "Loving Tribute to the Past, the Present, and the Future." The paean was inscribed beneath a statue of a young Confederate soldier facing north, a hand shading his eyes as he gazes into the distance, as if to guard against any further threats of incursion from that direction. The Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia is the most lavish elegy of its kind. Reconciliation was deemed the central theme of the Moses Ezekiel design. President Woodrow Wilson delivered a conciliatory address at the dedication ceremonies on 4 June 1914, and Union and Confederate veterans placed wreaths on the graves. There is no intimation on the monument, however, that the claims behind secession or the "Lost Cause" were not legitimate. The seal of the Confederacy was prominently inscribed; so too was a bas-relief of Minerva, goddess of war, and a shield bearing the word "Constitution." The overall stance in the rhetoric of northern and southern monuments—grudging reconciliation by the South, the solace of victory in the North—might be inscribed for the ages, but postwar monuments marked continued conflict. The Union was preserved and a status quo ante of peace was restored, but the issue of rights—state and civil—was not destined to be resolved.

Race played its part. The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, an Augustus Saint-Gaudens design, was erected in 1897 in honor of the colonel of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first all-black regiment recruited in the North. Shaw was killed in action on 18 July 1863, one of 256 casualties the Fifty-fourth incurred that day in an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. The assault was repulsed, but the virtues of black troops—which were doubted by factions on both the Union and the Confederate sides—were proven beyond doubt. The war had "but one meaning in the eye of history," William James concluded at the dedication ceremonies: the abolition of slavery, and "nowhere was that meaning better symbolised and embodied than in the constitution of this first Northern negro regiment" (James).

Slavery and its abolition are never explicitly cited in southern monuments. ("States rights" is arguably an oblique reference.) Nevertheless, the facade of Virginia's postwar unity in devotion to the Lost Cause was subverted at the West Point Cemetery of Elmwood Cemetery, Norfolk. A monument to Union soldiers in this black cemetery was completed in 1920. It was the only Union monument erected by southerners in Virginia and the only monument to black Civil War troops in that state. It was not the only claim to a legacy in the community: three Confederate monuments stand in the adjacent Elmwood Cemetery, and a fourth—to "Our Confederate Dead"—was erected in downtown Norfolk in 1907. The defiance implicit in the claims of southern monuments that the "Patriotism . . . of Confederate Soldiers" was committed to a "Just and Holy Cause," as espoused at the Oxford, Mississippi, courthouse, for example, did not go unchallenged.

See alsoArt and Architecture


Primary Work

James, William. "Dedication Speech: Oration at the Exercises in the Boston Music Hall, May 31, 1987 [sic], upon the Unveiling of the Shaw Monument." Department of English, College of the Holy Cross. Available at

Secondary Works

Craven, Wayne. The Sculptures at Gettysburg. New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1982.

Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Jacob, Kathryn Allamong. Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

McConnell, Stuart. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Soderberg, Susan Cooke. Lest We Forget: A Guide to Civil War Monuments in Maryland. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing, 1995.

Sparrow, John. Visible Words: A Study of Inscriptions in and as Books and Works of Art. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Warman, Joanne Browning, ed. The Memorial Wall to Name the Fallen: Warrenton, Virginia, Cemetery. Warrenton, Va.: Black Horse Chapter, No. 9, United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1998.

Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Timothy S. Sedore

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Civil War Memorials and Monuments

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