In addition to their style and their dedicators’ stated intentions, the location of monuments is important for interpreting their meaning. The Confederate monuments at Gettysburg were deliberately placed in their current locations in order to further a pro-Confederate telling of the story of the battle of Gettysburg. That these monuments were erected at Gettysburg rather than at Manassas, Vicksburg, or Appomattox is itself significant. Furthermore, each monument’s placement at its specific location on the battlefield is calculated to support a heroic Confederate narrative by freezing the imagined landscape of the battle at the dramatic moment of greatest possibility. Visitors’ experiences of the battlefield is profoundly shaped by the placement of monuments, and that placement tells a particular story.
In some ways, Gettysburg is a strange place for Confederate memorials. After all, communities generally prefer to commemorate their proudest moments rather than their embarrassments or defeats: Lexington and Concord
rather than New York
, San Juan Hill
rather than Manila
rather than Hiroshima
. Although Southern states erected monuments at other battlefield sites during the 20th century, many erected their most spectacular memorials at Gettysburg and no other battle site can boast monuments commemorating every Confederate state. Undoubtedly, some Southerners’ interest in building monuments at Gettysburg sprung from a practical desire to present their version of history to the greatest possible number of visitors at the country’s most popular Civil War site. In addition, by the early twentieth century, Gettysburg had become a national shrine to reunification and industrial-age might with a focus on military glory that “eclipsed the fundamental issues of race and freedom that propelled the war and continued to linger” (Weeks
The Confederate defeat at Gettysburg also occupied a special place in the mythology of the Lost Cause. In the years following the war, veterans and historians searching for explanations for the South’s defeat pinpointed Gettysburg as a crucial turning point in the war. Confederate sympathizers rushed to exonerate their beloved General Lee from any wrongdoing, eventually pinning most of the blame for the Confederacy’s defeat on General Longstreet’s supposed blunders during the second day’s fight, which necessitated the calamitous charge on the third.
According to many Confederate veterans and apologists, the loss at Gettysburg was a blow from which the Confederacy could not recover. Though most modern historians identify other factors – including the implosion of the slave-labor system, rampant desertion, and the collapse of support from Southern civilians – as the true causes of the Confederacy’s eventual demise, “elevating Gettysburg to mythical status” allowed Confederate sympathizers to “[explain] the loss of the war as a whole in a more palatable way” (Nolan
After deciding that Gettysburg was an appropriate place to honor the Confederacy, state monument committees had to choose specific sites for their memorials. These decisions were anything but straightforward, owing to the battlefield’s immense size, the dispersal of a single state’s troops among several different divisions and corps, and the historical fact of troop movements over the course of the three-day battle. How could the state of North Carolina possibly honor the men of the 23rd North Carolina
, who suffered 84% casualties on July 1st in an assault northwest of the town, and the men of the 26th North Carolina
, who were decimated during Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, with a single, stationary monument?*
Monument committees could not place markers at sites that were significant only to one or a few regiments without slighting others, so they erected their monuments at places that they believed would be significant for all. New York placed its state monument in the Gettysburg National Cemetery; Pennsylvania chose the geographic center of the Union battle line; all eleven ex-Confederate states chose Seminary Ridge.
The Gettysburg battlefield
is generally described as two opposing ridges, Seminary and Cemetery Ridge, which run parallel, about a mile apart, for several miles South of the town of Gettysburg. Cemetery Ridge is flanked by hills: Cemetery and Culp’s Hill to the North and Little and Big Round Top to the South. Excluding the first day’s battle, which was fought in the town and to its northwest, the two ridges form the defining topographical features of the battlefield. After the fighting on July 1st, the Army of the Potomac took up their famous “Fish Hook” position along Cemetery Ridge and dug in. On July 2nd, Confederate forces attacked the hills on both Union flanks, but were repulsed and fell back to Seminary Ridge. From this position
, Lee ordered Pickett’s disastrous charge on July 3rd. The Confederate monuments form a mile-long line on Seminary Ridge, approximating the Confederate line of battle in the early afternoon of July 3rd, just before Pickett’s Charge was launched and lost
By placing their monuments along Seminary Ridge, Confederate monument committees enshrined the mythology of Pickett’s Charge as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” The idea that Pickett’s Charge marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy is a central tenet of Lost Cause mythology, and the moments preceding the charge occupy a prominent place in the neo-Confederate imagination. In his 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
, Tony Horwitz describes reading the following passage from William Faulkner
’s Intruder in the Dust
(1948) to a group of Confederate reenactors as they prepared to recreate the doomed charge:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are loaded and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out . . . it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances . . . yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed even a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s roaring rim.
This fantasy had “lingered in the Southern imagination” long before the Confederate monuments were constructed, but their placement embodies the reverie, giving pilgrims a destination and firing the imaginations of visitors.
The position of the Confederate monuments also supports the curious fiction of the two armies’ physical separation during the battle. Although a few Confederate markers denote the point of farthest advance at the Angle, most Confederate monuments were erected far from any Union monuments. Union regiments such as the 72nd Pennsylvania and 20th Maine placed their memorials near the places that saw the fiercest fighting, but the monumental landscape bears little indication that Confederates also fought in those places.
On Little Round Top, the 20th Maine fought against men from Alabama, but, although the 20th Maine monument sits near “the spot where the colors stood,” the Alabama state monument is over a mile and a half away. Many sections of the battlefield that lie beyond the Union “Fish Hook,” including the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard, are littered with dozens of Union monuments, but they are unopposed by Confederate memorials. The 114th Pennsylvania commemorated their desperate fight around the Sherfy farm by erecting their monument a few feet from the Sherfy’s front door, while a monument on faraway Seminary Ridge honors the Mississippians who opposed them.
Though Union veterans undoubtedly wished to draw attention to their role as active combatants by placing their monuments at these sites, the absence of adversaries ultimately supports a history of reconciliation, in which Union and Confederate soldiers never get close enough to stab or maim one another.
The most recent Confederate monuments reflect the enduring resonance of both the Pickett’s Charge mythology and the reconciliation narrative. Two, the General Longstreet equestrian statue (1998, image at right via justmecpb
) and the 11th Mississippi monument (2000), are located on Seminary Ridge among the Confederate state monuments. Two others, the Maryland state monument (1994) and the “Friend to Friend” memorial (1993) are removed from the most active parts of the battlefield; the former stands in a small plaza near the old visitor’s center parking lot, the latter is the centerpiece of the WWII annex of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
While the two Seminary Ridge monuments merely contribute to the established monumental landscape there, the Maryland and Masonic monuments are part of an expanding effort to commemorate the battle by emphasizing mutual aid and suffering with monuments placed in locations that visitors do not generally associate with fierce fighting.**
Other monuments that contribute to this reconciliationist landscape are the Elizabeth Thorn Memorial
(2002, image at left via
), which honors the women of Gettysburg, and the Amos Humiston monument
(1993), dedicated to a Union soldier whose mangled body was identified when a burial detail found a picture of his children in his hand and published it in newspapers across the North.*** By shifting their attention from military valor to the trauma that soldiers and civilians shared, the growing 21st-century monumental landscape characterizes the battle as a national calamity similar to September 11th or a massive natural disaster, in which Americans banded together to overcome a tragedy that they seemingly had no hand in causing. In the coming years, we might expect to see new monuments erected at ostensibly neutral sites, such as the locations of field hospitals, in and around Gettysburg.
It is easy to glean meaning from sculptural forms and the words that are spoken over them, but most of Gettysburg’s visitors pass over monument placement without a second thought. At most, some might wonder why a monument to Confederate sailors
or to the last surviving Union veteran, Albert Woolson
(d. 1956), neither of whom fought at Gettysburg, were erected on this particular battlefield.
Still, the position of monuments influences the visitor’s experience and his or her historical imagination. When the principal Confederate monuments stand along the edge of the field immortalized by Pickett’s Charge instead of near Culp’s Hill or Little Round Top, they elevate the failed assault’s importance in service of the “High Water Mark” narrative. The physical distance between Confederate and Union monuments subtly deflects attention from the bloody reality of battle by separating the combatants and glorifying each side’s deeds without necessarily impugning the valor of the other. In recent years, efforts to extend the monumental landscape into putatively neutral spaces with explicitly reconciliationist sculptures have begun to temper the battlefield’s military focus, but without really challenging the older landscape’s values.
“Monuments attempt to mold a landscape of collective memory, to conserve what is worth remembering and discard the rest,” writes Kirk Savage in Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves
. At Gettysburg, the Confederate monumental landscape has preserved and elaborated on the mythology of the Lost Cause for the benefit of generations of 20th- and 21st-century visitors. Over the course of the 20th century, pro-Confederate memorialists have presented the Confederacy and its cause through images of heroic and suffering soldiers that elicit visceral, emotional responses in ways that the stiff, formal, and, in many cases, funerary sculpture of the Union monumental landscape does not. Is it any wonder that young visitors often feel drawn to the Confederate side, preferring to identify with the heroic underdogs of those awe-inspiring monuments rather than with the stolid and formulaic Union?
Despite the efforts of academic historians to challenge the foundations of the Lost Cause mythology, more Americans experience the Civil War through interactions with the monuments at Gettysburg than by reading an academic text, and the Lost Cause remains central to American historical memory. Rather than diminishing in power over the years, the central tenets of the Lost Cause have been packaged in more palatable forms and preserved. It is difficult to oppose the construction of monuments such as the “Friend-to-Friend” memorial, which is not blatantly offensive in any way. Still, the trajectory of the monumental landscape at Gettysburg suggests that future monuments will continue to represent Confederate soldiers as sympathetic and continue the “urgent” project of “dissociat[ing] the Confederacy from slavery” (Savage, 131). For now, at least, the only mention of any “new birth of freedom” at the battlefield will remain hidden away in the darkened room that houses the original copy of the Gettysburg Address
*The 26th North Carolina marched into battle on July 1st with 843 officers and men. Of these, only 70 remained alive and unwounded three days later, a casualty rate of 92%. See Earl Hess, Lee's Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-McRae Brigade
**Of course, the battle of Gettysburg raged through all parts of the town, so it impossible to draw a sharp distinction between the town and the battlefield. Nevertheless, certain parts of the battlefield, including the Angle, Little Round Top, and the fields to the northwest of town belong to the National Park Service, and are considered to be “the battlefield.” The monuments discussed here are located in developed areas of the town of Gettysburg, near hotels, shops, and restaurants. Though there was fighting in these areas, visitors generally experience them as places to sleep, shop, and eat, not as battle sites.
***Elizabeth Thorn was the wife of the caretaker of the Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg. Six months pregnant during the battle, she personally buried approximately one hundred soldiers in the following weeks. Her statue stands just inside the entrance to the Evergreen Cemetery. Isbell
Amos Humiston, a sergeant in the 154th New York, was killed on July 1, 1863. When his body was recovered by a burial detail after the battle, the only identifying document they could find was a photograph of Humiston’s three children, 8-year old Franklin, 6-year-old Alice, and 4-year-old Frederick. On October 19, 1863, the Philadelphia Inquirer published the photograph under the headline, “Whose Father Was He?” The story was reprinted in many newspapers, and Humiston’s wife, Philinda, eventually recognized the photograph. The tragic story of the Humiston children became a fundraising cause throughout the North, and so much money was donated that the Humistons built a house for war orphans in Gettysburg after the war. see Mark Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston
, (Greenwood Publishing, 1999).