Monday, January 21, 2013

The 2nd Fire Zouaves - Part Two

On July 2nd, 1893 - the 30th anniversary of the battle - survivors of the 73rd New York gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with other veteran New Yorkers to dedicate a monument honoring the service of the Excelsior Brigade at Gettysburg.

Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg. Photo by Jen Goellnitz. Creative Commons Licensing.
The cornerstone had been laid on the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1888. The five-sided base of the monument featured a plaque on each face dedicated to telling the role played by one of the five Excelsior regiments (70th through 74th New York). Above the base, five polished granite pillars supported a dome surmounted by a bronze eagle. In the center of the five pillars sat a pedestal that remains empty today. Newspaper accounts at the time of the dedication suggested that a bust of Dan Sickles would be placed on the empty pedestal after his death. In 1913--just before he passed away--Sickles was expelled from the New York Monument Commission because of an inability to account for thousands of dollars that had gone missing from the monument fund. His bust was never placed within this monument.

The Excelsior Brigade's memorial is fairly unique. Many of its regiments were initially stationed in reserve on July 2nd, and as a result they did not really fight as a unit in brigade line at Gettysburg, each regiment being parceled out where need was greatest. When it came time to build their memorials, each regiment's veterans' association had the funds to erect their own. They didn't, choosing instead to pool their resources and dedicate a $7,500 monument in a centralized location. Speaking at the dedication in 1893, General Henry Tremain explained why:
As our five regiments were always united in service and in sentiment, it was fitting that their survivors should unite in consolidating their interests in this enduring monument. May it help to perpetuate the memory of the Excelsior Brigade, and of the sturdy soldiers of which it was composed.
73rd New York Monument. Note the Excelsior
Monument in background. Photo by Jen Goellnitz.
Creative Commons Licensing.
For the 70th, 71st, 72nd and 74th New York, this one impressive monument would represent all members of the Excelsior Brigade. The commemoration of the 73rd's Gettysburg service remained incomplete, however. Four years later, on September 6th, 1897, the survivors of the 73rd would return to Gettysburg to dedicate a monument of their very own. Why, after consciously deciding to join with their fellow Excelsiors in honoring their service as a whole, would these veterans decide to place their own separate regimental monument mere yards away from the brigade memorial? The monument itself can perhaps guide us to the answer.

Writing on the day following the dedication, Gettysburg's Star and Sentinel described the monument for its readers:
The monument is a handsome work of art, suggestive of the organization of the Regiment. Mr. Moretti's [the sculptor] conception of it is an admirable one. On the one hand is the figure of the firemam in his old-time uniform, adopted just after the movement became a municipal one, which produced a compact, disciplined force out of a rather chaotic and antagonistic one. One hand holds the trumpet in the easy rest of parade, while the other grasps the hand of his war-like double. It is worth noting as evidence of the careful workmanship on the part of the founders, that the strained muscles and ligaments of the hand betoken no lukewarm clasp. It is a hearty, vigorous grip which betokens cordiality. The other figure is that of a typical zouave. The jaunty cap and blue jacket trimmed with yellow braid, the baggy red trousers tucked in the white leggings, and the flannel shirt, with loosely knotted tie--all are there in faithful representation of the figure and type which was notable for characteristics in the troublesome war times. The faces are handsomely worked out and convey an expression of intelligence. The figures are of heroic size being almost eight feet in height including the plinth. Their attitude is one of graceful repose and suggestive of their best conditional moments.
The 70th, 71st, 72nd and 74th had one wartime identity: they were Excelsiors. The 73rd had two: they were Excelsiors, and they were the 2nd Fire Zouaves. While the Excelsior Brigade Monument honored the legacy of Sickles's famous brigade, it did not honor the Civil War legacy of the New York City Volunteer Firefighters. That legacy was a rich one - one that began with the 1st Fire Zouaves, the 11th New York, and its Colonel, Elmer Ellsworth,  who was killed by an Alexandria innkeeper in May of 1861.

The Volunteer Fire Department of New York passed out of existence at the conclusion of the Civil War, when the city professionalized the force in 1865. The 2nd Fire Zouaves monument tells us though that the monument was erected at the insistence of those former volunteer firefighters. A tablet on the left side of the monument reads:
The Second
Fire Zouaves

served with The Army of the Potomac and participated in its campaigns
from Yorktown 1862
to Appomattox 1865
Total enrollment 1350
Total casualties 711

Erected 1897

Known also as the Fourth Regiment of Sickles Excelsior Brigade

Volunteer Fire Department
New York City
Organized 1658 Disbanded 1865

This monument was erected at the instance of the volunteer fireman of the City of New York represented by the figure on the left in grateful recognition of the services rendered by the Second Fire Zouaves on this field in defense of the Union July 2 1863.
Clearly, this monument aims to tell the story of firefighters as well as soldiers. Yet the 2nd Fire Zouaves served on many battlefields over its four years of service, and the story of its fight at Gettysburg had already been told on a monument nearby. Why choose Gettysburg as the place for this monument? Why not New York City?

The answer to that question, can again be found by exploring what the veterans said themselves. Just as he had back in 1893, Henry Tremain served as one of the prominent speakers on dedication day in 1897. Today most Civil War enthusiasts know Tremain for his role in the Meade-Sickles controversy. He played a significant role on July 2nd as an aide to Sickles, and he played a significant (and unsavory role) in the defense of Dan Sickles after the battle. To the veterans of the 73rd though, Tremain was one of their own, and also the man who had led them to the front on July 2nd. His September 6th speech provides us many clues as to the rationale behind the monument at Gettysburg. He began: 
The first thought that comes to the lips of the survivors of the little band who followed me here on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, is one of satisfaction that the associations representing the volunteer firemen of New York City, the great body that inspired the organization of the Second Fire Zouaves, should have inaugurated and brought to successful culmination this monumental token of affectionate remembrance for their offspring; and, more than that, should have persuaded the Empire State to unite with them in an enduring tribute to the comrades who fell here, and to the patriotic conduct of the organizing constituency, as well as of the soldiers and officers, of the Second Fire Zouaves.
After unveiling the statue in the middle of his dedication, Tremain explained why Gettysburg was the most fitting place for this memorial:
The monuments in this National Park have come to be something more than personal tributes to the fallen heroes of this single field. They are accepted as signifying the careers of organizations. They represent men and their constituencies which labored in the cause which was to stand or to fall by the arbitrament of war. The inscriptions on the monuments around us, in telling much of what happened here, fortunately suggest other facts about the events they speak for. As you read these inscriptions in your strolls yesterday much of what happened elsewhere has been brought to your memory. Each survivor has been reminded that there were other experiences of other regiments not exactly the same as his own, but equally exacting in burdens, dangers and excitements as the experiences of this field. Justly, therefore do the inscriptions recall the whole four years during which the forces that collided here were combating for the mastery on hundreds of other fields.

By common consent this battlefield is to represent the fields of four years of war. These monuments at one battlefield are to represent all battlefields where the several factors assembled in this battle engaged in other battles against a common enemy and upheld a common cause. These monuments typify a world of history, a multitude of lives and a multitude of deaths.
There, as one of the last regimental monuments from the state of New York was dedicated, Tremain explained what the significance of the Gettysburg Battlefield had become. For many northerners, and certainly for veterans of the Army of the Potomac, the landscape at Gettysburg meant more than just a commemorative place to preserve the actions and stories of one battle. Gettysburg had become one large temple to the entire war effort. As such, it was the proper place to memorialize not only the 2nd Fire Zouaves - as the Excelsior Brigade monument had already done - but also the "constituencies" that inspired those soldiers, such as the Volunteer Fire Department of New York City. It is only in viewing the battlefield through this lens that we can begin to understand why the 2nd Fire Zouaves, and its constituencies, needed a second monument at Gettysburg.

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