Saturday, July 09, 2005

Just Another Monument

Recently while blissfully wandering over the fields of the Battlefield at Gettysburg, I watched a father and his two daughters approach a monument of which I was about to take a picture. I paused and backed away as the girls' youthful energy brought them bounding forward, outpacing their more cautious escort. One of the two peered up at a stranger in bronze casting a hard shadow across her path. Puzzled, she queried innocently, "Daddy, who's that?" My delight at her question, coming from one so young, evaporated when the dismissive reply of "just another monument" raked across my ears.

Just another monument. Indignation supplanted my original happiness. "That Sir", I thought, "is Colonel Strong Vincent, former commander of the 83rd Pennsylvania." As a brigade commander in the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, without orders he shouldered the responsibility of answering the call of a fellow officer, risking court martial and his potentially brilliant military career by doing so. Leading his men to the defense of Little Round Top, the unprotected far left of the Union line, his life would be torn away while he tried to rally his men. The 26-year-old Pennsylvania native, Harvard graduate, lawyer, husband, and soon-to-be father, would die fighting for his country. Dedicated in September of 1889, his likeness atop the stone memorial to the men of the 83rd Pennsylvania is most certainly not just another monument.

Walking away in minor disgust, I wondered how frequently the monuments on these fields endure the indignity of similar yet perhaps unintended disrespect. Just north of the 83rd memorial is the monument to the 140th New York. Newly married and a year older than Vincent, Colonel Patrick O'Rorke would respond to a similar request for help and surge forward at the head of his men. On that same hill, striving to hold back the obstinate onrushing Texans, the former first-in-his-class graduate of West Point, would fall and die. His is not just another monument.

I recalled then that just to the west near the Devil's Den stands a monument with an officer crossing his arms looking out over the slopes to the south. On July 2, 1863, in response to pleas to not proceed mounted into battle, Colonel Augustus Van Horn Ellis said bravely, "The men must see us today." He would die that day, casting his own safety aside to lead and inspire his men.

In the Wheatfield, an unassuming monument stands just north of the stone wall. On the western face of the monument is a relief of an officer proudly waving his regiment's colors in the direction of the approaching enemy. Given a new flag while in his home state of Michigan, Colonel Harrison Jeffords swore to protect the banner with his life. True to his word, as Southerners swarmed on his men, the valiant colonel sacrificed himself to save these same colors from falling into others' hands. Forever standing defiantly with his cherished colors, that to the 4th Michigan is not just another monument.

Further north, a descendent of a Revolutionary War General, On July 2, 1863, Colonel George Willard would also heed the call of his country. Commanding the 3rd Brigade in General Hays' 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps, Colonel Willard would lead his men towards Confederate General William Barksdale's surging Mississippians. The Union line mid-Cemetery Ridge was painfully thin offering little hope of stopping Barksdale's veteran, driving soldiers. Pulled from the more secure Federal right, Colonel Willard led his brigade forward, blunting the Southerners' assault. Victory would come at a high cost however as the 35-year-old Colonel paid with his life when a Confederate shell removed part of his head. His second in command, Colonel Eliakim Sherrill would suffer a mortal stomach wound the next day while leading his men in the repulse of Pickett's Charge. Colonel Willard's small marker rests in the thicket were he gave his life to the Union. Colonel Sherrill's likeness graces one side of the monument to the 126th New York, his regiment prior to taking command of the brigade. Neither is just another monument.

The likeness of color bearer Benjamin Crippen of the 143rd Pennsylvania stands against the northern face of his regiments' monument. Yet few stop to visit the monument which now rests at the intersection of Route 30 and Reynolds Avenue. The defiant guardian of his regiment's standard gave ground grudgingly as he occasionally turned and shook his fist at the oncoming tide of gray. He would also suffer a mortal wound and offer up his life to his cause.

Other examples came to mind. The 66th New York Monument in the Wheatfield holds a bronze relief of a Union soldier shaking hands and offering a canteen to his wounded Southern counterpart. The grand monument to the men of New York in the national cemetery displays a similar scene of former enemies taking each other's hand. Adorning the apex of the memorial, the figure of Liberty stands weeping over the graves of her dead. The magnificent Pennsylvania Monument contains the names of the over 34,000 men from that state who served at Gettysburg. Three monuments to Major General John Reynolds honor the man who lost his life leading his men forward to "drive those fellows out of the woods" on day 1 of the battle. Culp's Hill is home to the marker to the 137th New York who, like the more famous 20th Maine on the Union left, held the far right against superior forces, refusing to give way.

Owing to the disproportionate number of Union monuments, there are fewer markers to the brave men from the South. They do exist however. The monument to the men of North Carolina, by Gutzon Borglum who also sculpted the figures on Mount Rushmore, is not just another monument. As the inscription on its companion marker reads, "One Confederate soldier in every four who fell here was a North Carolinian." The monument to the Virginians in the Army of Northern Virginia honors the men from all walks of life who gave up their homes to fight for their state. Atop this memorial, Robert E. Lee and Traveler watch over the fields that they strove so desperately to take. One of the few Southern regimental monuments, that to the 2nd Maryland on Culp's Hill honors the men of a Confederate regiment who fought against friends and neighbors when they clashed with Maryland men fighting for the Union. A Marylander himself, Union Colonel Wallace would lament, "We sorrowfully gathered up many of our old friends and acquaintances and had them carefully and tenderly cared for."

Not all of the monuments note human valor. The 11th Pennsylvania chose to honor their faithful mascot who, on day one, went into battle with the men she loved. The men of the 11th lost Sallie, a brindle bull terrier, when they retreated through the town after the reverses of July 1st. Weak and struggling for life, she refused to leave the side of the 11th's fallen and was found by their sides three days later. Nursed back to health, she would stand with her regiment until the Battle of Hatcher's Run when, just before war's end, she would be struck by a Confederate bullet and die on the field.

There are so many others with similar stories. Each marker, monument, and memorial stands for men, memories, and deeds we must not forget. The men who fought on the sacred fields of, in, and around Gettysburg forged the nation whose liberty we now enjoy. Holding their memory sacred is a comparably small sacrifice considering those of the men that their monuments will eternally honor.

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." - President Abraham Lincoln, A portion of the Gettysburg Address.



All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

The Monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield
Gettysburg. Steven W. Sears
Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments. Frederick W. Hawthorne
National Park Service markers and interpretive signs


Novus Livy said...

Wonderfully put. Indeed, you are correct -- there is no such thing as "just another monument". If only a veteran of the 83rd Pennsylvania had been present to tell that father just who Strong Vincent was, and how important it was.

Jeanne Moore Mair said...

I have not been able to locate our Benjamin Crippen who died in the Civil War and have not been able to find his grave in a National Cemetary listing. Could it be that I have finally found him?? He left two small orphans and his wife died two years later. The grandmother raised the children. I do not have his record handy this minute.

mbshafer said...


Many thanks for expressing so well the honor and respect these people deserve. Three of my great-grand uncles of my Shafer surname fought in PA units at Gettysburg. When I visit there I always walk the retreat line of the 2nd. PA Bucktails line from McPhearson's barn to the Seminary Ridge. It is there that Sgt. Ben Crippen fell in his defiant gesture. I trust he was an inspiration to all the men of the 143rd, 149th and 150th. PA Regiments. It is truly hallowed ground. The least we owe these people, on both sides of the cause, is respect for and an understanding of their courage and sacrifice. Thanks again for this thoughtful piece.

Mike Shafer
Pittsburgh, PA
great-grand nephew of
Sgt. John Shafer
Co. I, 143rd PA