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Kathleen James-Chakraborty: Monuments Matter

by Kathleen James-Chakraborty (via The Moore Institute) | Jul 06, 2020

We called it Cannon Park. A triangular sliver of green separating the Court House lawn from High Street, it was just around the corner from our front door in Chestertown, Maryland. We passed it on foot on the right on the way to church on Sundays, or on the left when we headed uptown to shops or the public library the rest of the week, a path that also took us past the pharmacy that had torn out its stools so that we could not have a place to sit and drink milkshakes with our Black classmates. That was also where on the evening of 4 April 1968, I was instructed to go straight home and give my father the news that Martin Luther King had been shot.

Much larger than the cannon was an imposing rectangular chunk of rough-hewn stone, taller than we were, with a large polished surface on each of its two principal faces. If you stopped to take a closer look, you could read the name of the county’s Confederate dead carved into one side and the Union officers and a few privates (10 remain nameless) into the other. It offered, whether one went to First or Christ United Methodist Church (the two face each other across opposite sides of the same intersection), a clue to which side local white families had taken in the conflict. Although it was on our way to almost everywhere, we paid it little mind. The Civil War, like segregation, was finally in the past; integration was the present. In the future, whether or not the stools were reinstalled, we assumed we would “be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” with the friends we made in school.

Chestertown’s Civil War Memorial is a border state anomaly. It takes no side, contains no figures, and was erected only in 1917, by which time the first wave of memorial construction in the United States had already crested. Most county seats in the states that fought put theirs up in the final years of the nineteenth century. For instance, the campus of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, well to the west but only a few miles north of Chestertown, features one dedicated in 1893. It consists of a tall Doric column flanked by four Union soldiers and sailors and surmounted by a fifth.

To my parents’ generation and to us as children, these ubiquitous memorials seemed outmoded. In “For the Union Dead,” published in 1964, two years before I entered Chestertown Elementary School’s first integrated classrooms, Robert Lowell wrote that “on a thousand small town New England greens:”

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier

grow slimmer and younger each year –

wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets

and muse through their sideburns . . .

The situation was little different across the former slave states, where the Civil Rights movement focused on desegregation and voting rights, not on what to do with Confederate generals on horseback or privates stamped in many cases out of the same molds as their Union counterparts.

Two subsequent events demonstrated that monuments do matter and that Civil War monuments still matter enormously. The first occurred in 1981, when Maya Lin, who had grown up in Athens, Ohio, won the competition to design a Vietnam War Memorial for the Mall in Washington, DC, with a design very different from the one that rose fifty feet high on the campus of Ohio University where her parents taught. She ushered in a new chapter in the history of memorials in the United States and arguably also far beyond.

Although originally extremely controversial, once it was built, her V-shaped cut into the landscape inscribed with the names of the dead in a respectful and unjudgmental spirit, quickly commanded strong public support, both among veterans’ groups, who appreciated the specificity of the names, and opponents of the war, who lauded its lack of triumphalism.

That monuments mattered had not been clear since at least the 1930s, by which point abstraction firmly challenged the sculptural conventions of the previous century. The country’s victory in World War II was not accompanied by any enthusiasm for erecting statues; the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington County, Virginia – based on a photograph of troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima – is the exception rather than the rule. Highways and sports pitches were more popular means of commemoration than statues (we drove on the Blue Star Memorial Highway when we went to Memorial Stadium to watch Frank Robinson hit homeruns for the Baltimore Orioles). The fruits of victory were manifested above all in the benefits, such as improved access to higher education and home ownership, that the G.I. bill bestowed on most veterans of the conflict.

Maya Lin’s design was remarkable for its lack of figural sculpture and classical motifs. It existed entirely outside the growing postmodern enthusiasm in the early 1980s for a return to figuration in the arts and historicism in architecture, although against her wishes two such statues were eventually added (and are entirely ignored by most visitors). Indeed, for many of us her success pointed to the shallowness of these additions and to the capacity of the general public to engage with modern art and architecture. Although she triggered a wave of American memorial building – initially above all of structures commemorating the Holocaust and later to the victims of 9/11 – her achievement did not immediately engender any reassessment of Civil War memorials, which she appeared to have pushed even further into a now mute past.

The massacre in 2015 at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church finally forced the American public to focus on the content of America’s original wave of memorial culture. Equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, were particular flashpoints following the right-wing rally held in Charlottesville in 2017, with Charlottesville’s statue quickly covered in protective wrapping and Baltimore’s removed. Since George Floyd’s murder this May many more Americans have begun to think about the power of commemorative sculpture as a political act. For the most part memorials to the Union have been left undamaged and out of the conversation, although Dublin-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gauden’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston’s Common has been vandalized. New York Times art critic Holland Carter recently questioned whether, because Shaw is mounted on horseback while the United States Army’s first African-American soldiers march on foot below their white officer, the statue is an example of white supremacism. Having discovered what I still consider respectful depiction of the soldiers who inspired the movie Glory, upon moving north as a teenager, I do not agree. Lowell reminds us that at its dedication “William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.”

Read full article with illustrations and more about the Moore Institute here.

Kathleen James-Chakraborty has been an SAH Member since 1982.  She has served as Chair of the Kostof Book Award Committee, on the Nominating Committee, as a Session Chair iat the 2017 Annual Conference in Glasgow, where she also gave the Plenary Talk, has served on the Board of SAH and has been the JSAH Exhibition Review Editor.  

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