Saturday, May 19, 2012

The First Memorial

Article from Gettysburg's Star &Sentinel, dated October 16, 1867

Today, Gettysburg National Military Park has well over 1,300 monuments, markers, and tablets scattered across the battlefield and the town, honoring those who fought there, and marking the various positions held by units of both armies. The very first of these monuments appeared in late 1867 - a simple memorial urn made out of marble.

The urn, as Gettysburg's Star & Sentinel described in that year, "consists of a large marble vase, set on a marble die, which rests on a marble pedestal, and then again on a large granite base." The monument was inscribed:
Memorial Urn to the First Minnesota.
Front: "The surviving members of the First Regiment Minnesota Infantry, to the memory of their late associates, who 'died on the field of honor,' at Gettysburg, 1863."
Reverse: "First Minnesota Volunteers."
The sides of the monument have two quotes related to the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, in November of 1863. On one side: "The dead shall not have died in vain," referencing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. On the other: "All time is the millennium of their glory," a quote taken from Edward Everett's oration. 

The memorial urn faces the Minnesota plot in the National Cemetery, the final resting place for 52 soldiers, all of the 1st Minnesota - the only regiment from the state at Gettysburg. The regiment was the first accepted for service following President Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers in the wake of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. At Gettysburg on July 2nd, the regiment received orders from General Winfield Scott Hancock to charge many times their number in order to buy time for reinforcements to cover gaps on cemetery ridge caused by the advance (and subsequent retreat) of units from the 3rd Corps and Caldwell's Division of the 2nd Corps.

Colonel William Colvill Jr., wounded during the charge, remembered:
We had when we went in, 269 officers and men present [several companies having been detached]; of these 57 were killed outright, and 167 wounded, many fatally, upwards of 60 of them died in hospital. Four Captains killed, all brave and experienced and cultivated soldiers, and from 4 Lieutenants, 6 color bearers, all shot, one after the other as they successively carried the flag.... As you see by the figures only about 45 of the officers and men of the regiment escaped, out of 269. Total killed and wounded 224. These figures speak for themselves.

It seems fitting that the survivors of such a regiment that truly gave the "last full measure of devotion" at Gettysburg became the first to honor their fallen comrades. Even without knowing the date of this monument, its symbolism can serve as a clue in dating its placement in the cemetery.

Efforts to commemorate the Civil War - and the battle of Gettysburg, began before the war had even concluded. Indeed, some memorials existed before the end of the war. At Gettysburg, two attorneys took on the task of commemoration almost immediately after the battle concluded.  David McConaughy began purchasing key areas of the ground- East Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, Little Round Top - with a view toward battlefield preservation that very summer. In 1864, McConaughy would help establish the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. Meanwhile, David Wills undertook to establish a National Cemetery, culminating in the dedication of the cemetery on November 19, 1863. By 1864, planning began to erect a massive Soldiers National Monument to serve as the centerpiece amidst the semi-circle of graves in the cemetery. On July 4th, 1865 the cornerstone for the Monument - was laid. The dedication would come four years later, on July 1st, 1869, with General George Gordon Meade himself performing the unveiling.

A depiction of the Soldier's National Monument Taken from A Complete Guide to the Monuments and Indications and Guide to the Positions of the Gettysburg Battlefield by J. Howard Wert, published in 1886.
 Many of these early efforts focused on honoring the dead, none perhaps more famous than the Decoration Days of the late 1860s that would lead to the creation of Memorial Day. Traditionally, on these days held in late spring communities would turn out to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. On May 31st, 1869, the New York Times editorialized on this emerging national holiday:
To strew flowers on the graves of the heroes is at once a pious and patriotic tribute, done in the simplest and most touching way. This right of one of those very few customs which a nation may be proud to have originated and maintained. The very purpose of the day - to honor those who have died for the Union; the memories it awakens - not vindictive, but tender and grateful; the cordial ceremony of the day - to bedeck the hallowed grounds where heroes sleep with the freshest flowers of Spring; all those combine to make it a memorial day as useful and suggestive to the living as it is significant and grateful to the dead.... Should it ever come to be distinguished less for floral tribute than for pomp of procession, display of general oratory, the exhibition of official personages, the self-seekings of men or societies, it will lose its charm. And yet this is probably the precise danger which lies in its path.

The memorial urn in the National Cemetery predates the proliferation of monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield by more than a decade. The monument to the 2nd Massachusetts, the first to mark an actual position held by a regiment in the battle, was not dedicated until 1879. To me, the urn represents a form of commemoration altogether different from the major period of Union memorials - post 1879. While those monuments sought to honor veterans and their heroic deeds by proudly marking the sight of their triumph, this simple urn sought to mourn the dead "in the simplest and most touching way," to borrow a phrase from the New York Times.

Today, the memorial urn is one of three monuments associated with the 1st Minnesota. Two more monuments were placed on the field in the 1890s, the main monument marks the location of their heroic charge on July 2nd, while a secondary monument marks the unit's participation in the repulse of Longstreet's assault on July 3rd.

On Thursday, July 6, 1897 the Gettysburg Compiler reported the official dedication of the main monument:
On the rise of the ground beyond the High Water Mark, along Hancock Avenue, stands the monument erected as a tribute to the First Regiment of Minnesota Volunteers. The granite pedestal is surmounted by a heroic bronze soldier-figure in the act of a double-quick forward move with level bayonet, and it typifies the way in which the men of that command fought here.  This monument was dedicated by the survivors, on Friday morning at 10 o'clock, with interesting and enthusiastic exercises.

1st Minnesota Monument at the sight of their July 2nd charge. Library of Congress.
The Compiler reported that several hundred attended the dedication. Perhaps the highlight of the festivities came with the brief but stirring remarks by Colonel William Colvill Jr. By 1897, the inspirations behind memorializing the Civil War had changed, shifting away from a desire to mourn the dead, toward a desire for glorifying the mutual sacrifice of all veterans.

That same year the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on Decoration Day exercises in that city. The festivities included an imposing parade of regulars, militia, and cadets reviewed by Governor Tanner and General John R. Brooke, a Gettysburg veteran.
Chicago Daily Tribute, June 1st, 1897
It seems that by 1897, Decoration Days may have lost some of the immediate sense of mourning that marked the earliest instances and the placement of the 1st Minnesota memorial in the National Cemetery. Certainly, they had added more of the "pomp of procession" that our unknown New York Times writer warned against in 1867. By the time Decoration Day arrived in 1898, the United States found itself at war with Spain.

This Memorial Day I hope to find myself reflecting on the original intent of the holiday, and the memorial urn that was the first monument placed on the Gettysburg battlefield.


  1. Excellent stuff, Steve. Looking forward to more.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article about the brave and courageous men of the 1st MN. Succinct and well-stated is this article—the soldiers of the 1st would be very grateful, I’m sure. One was my ancestor, Henry Charles Winters, who was killed during the Charge of the First MN. Terrific to commemorate this on the 160th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg!