I am fond of telling people “Sometimes the green light at the end of the dock just means don’t hit the dock.” (Bonus points if you know what literary classic that references). Some things aren’t meant to be symbolic and the constant need to find meaning in everything can be exhausting. Monuments, on the other hand, are rife with intended and unintended symbolism and they deserve a close examination to really understand the story their commissioners hope to tell.
Often times, monuments tell us as much or more about the people who commission and build the monuments than they do about the events and people they commemorate. Being able to read monuments helps place them in the proper historical context. Many Civil War memorials were built after the war, sometimes many decades after. They are primary documents of a post-Civil War age telling us what their commissioners thought important and providing insight into the cultural norms of the commissioners' era.
I recently visited Shiloh National Military Park. The park has a variety of memorials and monuments--regimental markers, state monuments and upturned cannon barrels marking the sites of the generals' mortal woundings. One of the most visible monuments is located at tour stop 2--The Confederate Memorial. The monument, created by Frederick C. Hibbard in 1917 was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC used a lot of symbolism in this monument, and the National Park Service even includes an explanation of that symbolism on an interpretive marker at the site. Possibly even more interesting are the choices the UDC and the sculptor made in carrying out the symbolism. Both the intended and unintended symbolism deserve a closer look. But before we do that, let's give you a refresher (or an introduction, exceedingly brief though it is) to the Battle of Shiloh as it is important to reading this monument.
The Battle of Shiloh was fought on April 6th and 7th, 1862. The first day of battle, the Confederates surprised the Union troops and pressed them from their advanced camps and back along a line close the Pittsburg Landing. Despite the death of Confederate army commander General Albert Sidney Johnston, as the sun set on the evening of April 6th, the Confederate troops and their new commanding general, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, were confident of a total success the next morning....if only the Union troops stuck around long enough to be destroyed and didn’t retreat under cover of darkness.
Even while Beauregard was telegraphing Confederate President Jefferson Davis of a complete victory, Union reinforcements in the form of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio were being ferried across the Tennessee River and Grant’s lost division under General Lew Wallace was filing into position on the compact defensive line.
When the sun rose the next morning, Beauregard discovered Grant and his troops hadn’t run. In fact, they were in a very strong position with fresh troops. The fight on April 7th proved to be the exact opposite of the fighting on April 6th. Union troops pushed the Confederates back and regained the camps they lost the prior day. On the afternoon of April 7th, with his troops exhausted and low on ammunition and food, General Beauregard ordered a general retreat and the Confederates left the field and fell back to Corinth, Mississippi.
Knowing how the battle played out, can you identify the symbols of the Confederate story?
First, let's take a look at the intentional symbolism the UDC included in this monument.
The central bronze figure contains three women. The woman in the front and center is Victory. In her right hand is the laurel wreath of victory. Her head is bowed in defeat and she is relinquishing the laurel wreath to the woman behind and to her right. This woman represents Death. The Death she symbolizes is that of General Albert Sidney Johnston, about whom Jefferson Davis once said, “If Sidney Johnston is no general, then we have no general.” The woman behind Victory to the left is Night. During the battle, the coming of night blunted the momentum of the Confederate advance and brought Union reinforcements.
On the left of the monument, the front figure represents the cavalry. His hand is opened in frustration as his horses are not able to penetrate the dense undergrowth on the battlefield. He has no ability to support the Confederate battle plan. Behind him, a representation of the officer corps bows his head at the knowledge that he has been unable to bring a victory.
On the right of the monument, a Confederate Infantryman has snatched up the Confederate battle flag in defiance of the Union army and behind him, an artilleryman stands confidently ready for battle.
In the limestone, there are several reliefs. The easiest to interpret is the profile at the center of the monument. It belongs to General Johnston and its central location shows the artist's belief in his central role in the battle. After the battle, many of his supporters claimed that had he not been killed, the Confederates would have been able to crush the Union army and may have altered the course of the war.
On the right side of the monument, you see the profiles of 11 soldiers, their heads high as they rush like waves into battle. There is one soldier for each Confederate state. They appear confident and courageous. They are marching into battle on April 6th.
On the left, those same soldiers’ heads are bowed in disappointment and sorrow. Count them now. There are only 10 left. This is the battle on April 7th.
The UDC has used stone and bronze to tell this story:
The soldiers of the Confederate States confidently marched into battle under their leader General Albert Sidney Johnston. The Cavalry wasn’t able to support the infantry and artillery because of the dense undergrowth. The artillery and infantry bravely stood up to the Union army, but a sure victory turned into defeat with the death of Johnston and the coming of night that stopped the Confederate momentum and brought Union reinforcements. As the Confederate army retreated, they left many good men behind on the field of battle.
That's a lot of symbolism to fit onto a monument its size. But the intended symbolism is only one part of the story.
Let's take a second look at the central bronze figure: Victory, Death and Night. As mentioned earlier, the death that is taking the laurel wreath from the hand of Victory is that of General Johnston. Despite the unwavering support Johnston had from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Battle of Shiloh was not the apex of his career. Just a few month prior, the defensive line he set up was breached by a joint army-navy expedition that took Forts Henry and Donelson for the Union, leading to the permanent loss of Kentucky and Middle Tennessee including the capital of Nashville. He was being skewered in the press.
On the other end of the popularity spectrum was Johnson's nominal second in command, PGT Beauregard, proclaimed the Hero of Fort Sumter and Manassas. He was widely lauded by the press and the populace and many were known to proclaim their excitement that "Bory" had come to town.
How did these roles get reversed? Much of it has to do with personal relationships. Davis and Johnston were colleagues and friends with a lot of mutual respect. Davis and Beauregard had a strained relationship partly due to Beauregard's love of crafting grand--and impossibly complicated--strategies. Johnston had the posthumous support of General Braxton Bragg and others (who may have actually been less pro-Johnston than they were anti-Beauregard) who shaped the narrative and Johnston's story was helped along by Johnston's son and aide, Colonel William Preston Johnston, who published his father's biography after the war. Even today, many consider Johnston the presumptive savior of the Confederacy, shot down in his prime.
In the same central figure, it is also interesting to note that Night is looking over her shoulder with a furtive glance. Her posture evokes trepidation and nervousness, as if she knows what is coming and is powerless to stop it. Taken with Death, who is taking the laurel wreath from Victory, it evokes a tableau that the victory has been stolen by forces beyond the Confederates' control. Night comes. It is inevitable. Death comes. It is inevitable. And together, two inevitable forces that come each in their own time, take the victory away.
It would be unusual for a commissioner to ask for a statue that illustrated ones failures (I have had many failures in my life, and have chosen not to memorialize them), but in the case where they have chosen to erect a Confederate Memorial on a battlefield where the Confederates failed to secure victory, they chose to commemorate the event by symbolically having victory taken from them (rather than being an active participant in their own defeat) by two inevitable, and ultimately neutral, forces--death and night.
It is also interesting that the monument is clearly showing the bravery of the individual soldiers. All three of the branches of the army--artillery, infantry and cavalry--are posed with heads high, eager to meet the enemy. Though the cavalry is unable to help, they show frustration, not shame. The one statue with head bowed is representing the officer corps. The officers showed the weakness and bare the shame of the defeat.
It is interesting that the central figure alludes to the idea that there was nothing that could be done to stave off the inevitable coming of death and night, but that the officer corps was complicit in the defeat.
When added to the intentional symbolism included in the Confederate Monument, it tells the story of not only April 6 and 7, 1862, but of how people of 1917 remembered the battle and the primary players.
There are many ways to appreciate a memorial: as a work of art, as a means to remembering history, and as a way to document the changing interpretations of our history. I realize that sometimes, it is easier and less complicated to simply appreciate a monument for its aesthetic value. Please do so. Monuments can be beautiful creations. My challenge to you is the next time you see a monument, take a moment to read it. See if you can tell what the monument's commissioners intended to say, and what other messages the monument conveys. You will learn about both Civil War history and Civil War memory.
Anyone who has watched the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, knows the heartbreaking words written by Rhode Island Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sara. The letter, written from his Union Army encampment in Washington D.C. just one week before the first major land battle of the Civil War (Bull Run) is evocative as both a love letter and a statement of purpose.
The letter gives us insight into the motives driving the early volunteers called to arms by President Lincoln’s request for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion in the Cotton 7 states. It also gives us insight into a very human relationship between a man and his wife and children.
Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861
My Very Dear Wife:
Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.
I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and "the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death," have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.
I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
1. Have you ever received a letter? Why kinds of emotions does it evoke? Do other forms of communication evoke those same emotions or different ones?
2. What does Sullivan say is his motivation for leaving his family and fighting for the Union?
3. Imagine you were living in Rhode Island in 1861 and were undecided about whether to join the fight. If Sara shared her husband’s letter with you, would it convince you to join the army? Would it convince you to stay home?
4. Would this letter be necessarily different if this were written by a volunteer from South Carolina? How would you expect it to differ? How would you expect it would be the same?
When Drummer Boy was 2, I wanted to supplement his library with history picture books. While on one of my trips to a battlefield (though I don’t remember which one), I picked up a picture book about the Civil War that had everything I was looking for: beautiful illustrations, great Civil War topics and a way for me to teach him the alphabet.
The topics addressed in B is for Battle Cry are very broad—Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are discussed alongside disease, the role of quartermasters and prisons for captured soldiers—and add a level of depth and context that will make this interesting for older readers and parents as well as children just learning their alphabet.
For me, the meter of the verses was a little bit difficult to navigate. It never seemed to quite roll of the tongue while I was reading it aloud. I believe the reason for this is the verses were written to be sung to the tune of Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More. Don’t be worried if you, like me, were not immediately familiar with this incredibly popular song from the mid-nineteenth century. To help you out, the author, Patricia Bauer, sings her verses to the accompaniment of her acoustic guitar in a free download available on her illustrator husband’s website.
The four line alphabet verses are supplemented by sidebars that give older readers and parents more explanation of the topics addressed. Though “T is for Trains,” its side bar discusses the new and emerging technology like telegraphs, rifle muskets and the Gatlin gun, that leads many historians to consider the Civil War the first modern war. And while “Y is for Yankee” Johnny Reb is mentioned as the counterpoint to Billy Yank and the author describes the families who were torn apart by divided loyalties.
Overall, this is a great introduction to the Civil War for young readers and little ones who like to be read to. For the full experience, try singing the verses and see how it transforms story time.
Buy your own copy of B is for Battle Cry: A Civil War Alphabet.
Imagine you are 19 (again?). What is your plan for your life? Was your answer earning a statue and eternal fame?
Well, to be honest, if he was asked that same question on the morning of December 13, 1862, it is likely Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland wouldn’t have answered that way either. The 19 year old was in the 2nd South Carolina Infantry and positioned behind a stone wall that fronted a sunken road called the Telegraph Road near the top of Marye’s Heights. Below him, he would have seen an empty field gradually sloping from his position to the edge of the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and beyond it, the Rappahannock River. From across the river, lines of blue-clad troops tromped across pontoon bridges and up through the streets of the town.
As they reached the edge of the empty field, Union soldiers moved into line of battle and began their march toward the strong defenses anchored by the four foot stone wall in front of 9,000 Confederate troops, the 2nd South Carolina and Richard Kirkland among them. Kirkland would have seen 14 separate attacks come up the plain and falter hundreds of feet from their goal of the stone wall, the Union troops cut down in rows by the withering infantry and artillery fire. It turned out that Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander’s prediction had been true. “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
Not a chicken, or very many men. The most successful of the repeated charges only came within 40 yards of the stone wall before breaking.
That night, thousands of Union soldiers lay on the slope, some dead, some dying, and many wounded. Those who were still alive were cold. Those who could still grip their weapons were taking shots at the Confederates who remained behind the wall and who were returning their fire in measure.
There was moaning, crying and prayers going up from the men on the field. Men begged for water, and peace.
The cries were not easy to ignore for young Sergeant Kirkland. They continued all night and into the next day. By the afternoon of December 14, Sergeant Kirkland had had enough. He approached his brigade commander, General Joseph B Kershaw to ask permission to give the suffering Union wounded water. Kershaw attempted to dissuade him by pointing out the possibility—rather, the likelihood—of getting shot for his efforts, but Kirkland persisted. He asked if he could take a white handkerchief with him on his errand but was denied. He chose to go anyway.
Kirkland stepped over the wall, and reached the nearest wounded soldier. “He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.” (Kershaw, Humane Hero of Fredericksburg, Letter to Charleston News and Courier, January 2, 1880).
Once soldiers understood his purpose, they ceased their fire. For an hour and a half, Kirkland ministered in this way to the fallen enemy before returning to his lines.
Kirkland survived the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before being sent to north Georgia with the rest of Longstreet’s Corps in September 1863. He arrived on the battlefield at Chickamauga too late to participate in the first day’s action, but was heavily involved in the second day’s route of the Federal army from the field. He was shot on Snodgrass Hill and killed.
In 1965, the National Park Service installed a statue to Richard Kirkland along the stone wall and sunken road at the Fredericksburg battlefield near the site where he gave so much comfort to the wounded enemy. It is called The Angel of Marye’s Heights.
There has been recent scholarship that calls into question the accuracy of this story. Did it happen the way General Kershaw told it? Did it happen at all?
There is no mention of the act in the after action reports. None of his fellow soldiers mention seeing it. There does not appear to have been the hour and a half cease fire during which Kirkland carried out his mission. Does this mean it didn’t happen?
The story came to the attention of the general public when, in 1880, General Kershaw, Kirkland’s brigade commander, recorded Kirkland’s daring acts in a letter written to, and published in, the Charleston News and Courier.
Kershaw’s letter was written during Reconstruction, a time when the country was being put back together piece by piece. It is possible that his intention in writing his letter was to demonstrate a friendship and mercy between the two sides that illustrated the hope of the mending country. The erection of the statue by the National Park Service in 1965 may also be symbolic of a desired peace between enemy combatants that was missing during the height of the cold war.
Read Richard Kirkland, The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg and Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?
1. Do you think the story of Richard Kirkland is true as Kershaw presents it? Is Kershaw’s tale an embellishment? A fabrication? Why?
2. What lesson can be learned from the story of Richard Kirkland? Does that lesson change if the story is exaggerated or fabricated?
3. Have you ever been in a situation, or known of someone in a situation, where they risked personal safety to provide comfort to someone? Under what circumstances, if any, could you imagine yourself doing so?
When I was sitting in the field at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania Court House in 2015, I saw two park-goers engaged in a game of soccer…on the remains of the trenches of the Mule Shoe Salient. When I asked that they not climb over the trenches where thousands of men fought for 20 hours in what may have been the most brutal combat of the Civil War, the gentleman of the couple asked me if I even knew what it was about. I laughed. He took it to mean I didn’t know.
In truth, I laughed because this topic comes up with alarming frequency on a very popular Civil War message board where I spend time. In late 2015 and early 2016, a poll asking members about the cause of the Civil War generated a measly 39 votes which then generated 3,170 posts (and counting) that totaled 159 pages long. So why is there still a controversy 150 years later about what caused the Civil War?
I have been debating for some time exactly how I want to go about addressing what tends to be the enduring controversy of the Civil War: What was it all about, anyway?
I really didn’t want to launch the site to immediate controversy because no matter how well I write about this particular topic, someone will be upset. But the truth is, the way others address this situation tells me how serious a scholar they are, and I should be willing to put my credentials on display for my loyal readers by addressing this particular issue to the best of my ability.
Besides, to exclude the topic from my initial launch of the website buries one of the most essential and important things to be learned from the Civil War. If we don’t know why it was fought, how can anything else really matter?
Check out my essay on The Cause of the Civil War on the Civil War Topics Page.
Thanks for stopping by Civil War Scout! I am so happy to know that I am not typing into a void and that someone, anyone, is actually reading (however, I admit, I would write this blog just for my own enjoyment). I have a lot to say, and hopefully much of it will engage you and your family in discovering the Civil War from a different perspective.
I have loved history since I was nine years old. My love of the Civil War is a more recent development. It all started when I took Amtrak to Harpers Ferry, Antietam and Gettysburg in 2008. While standing in the Bloody Lane, hearing my personal tour guide tell me graphic descriptions of the carnage that place had seen, I realized that the Civil War may have been even more instrumental that the Revolutionary War in defining who we are as a country today. That revelation started me on a path from which I have never looked back.
I enjoy learning about history, and about what it can tell us of the present and what it may predict for the future. I realize that many (or most) textbooks are boring. It’s hard to find the connection between the past, present and future in those dry texts. There has to be a better way to connect with the important people, moments and themes of the Civil War. I hope that you and your family use this website and blog as a tool to discover the Civil War that doesn’t make it into the textbooks.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.