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.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.