Thursday, March 21, 2013

Incorporating the Commemorative Landscape: The 121st PA

Back in January I started a weekly material culture series. I was going strong for about 5 weeks before I faltered a bit. This week, Material Culture Thursday returns with a look at the monument(s) of the 121st Pennsylvania.

12st PA Monument on Reynolds Avenue.
Photo by Jenn Goellnitz. Creative Commons Licensing.
During the Future of Civil War history conference, I attended an excellent field experience entitled Incorporating the Commemorative Landscape into Civil War Interpretation. We boarded a bus on a cold and rainy Saturday morning and headed out to the battlefield with Sue Boardman, Thomas Desjardin, and Thomas Brown. For an hour and a half our group analyzed the interpretive potential, and the dangerous pitfalls of Gettysburg's monuments. Along the way we considered a number of questions. How for example, can public historians help visitors approach Civil War battlefields as commemorative, not historical, landscapes? And how can we assist those visitors in learning to read a monument?

The monuments are part of what makes Gettysburg such a compelling interpretive space. These huge hunks of carved stone, can tell us so much, but only if we approach them carefully. Arm a visitor with a tiny bit of knowledge, set them loose on the battlefield, and the monuments can confuse and misinform in a hurry. Take Culp's Hill, for example. Wind your way along the battlefield avenues, glimpsing the vast array of stone sculptures representing units from the 6th and 12th Corps, and you would never guess that on the evening of July 2nd, one lonely Union brigade fought a desperate fight in the trenches against a much larger foe.

Battlefield monuments often tell us more about the time that they were erected than they tell us about the battle. Confederate state monuments erected in the 1960s, for example, tell us more about the Civil Rights movement - and reactions to it - than they do about the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. And yet, equipped with a good sense of the different eras of commemoration and a bit of background history on the monuments themselves, a visitor can learn a great deal. Many of the monuments at Gettysburg - particularly Union monuments - are primary sources placed on the battlefield by veterans. As such, they reveal exactly what those veterans wanted us to learn about their experience.

A great example  is the monument of the 121st Pennsylvania on Reynolds Avenue. The veterans of the 121st placed this memorial in the general area that they fought on July 1st on the extreme left flank of the First Corps line. This was not the first monument these veterans placed on this location. In 1886, they dedicated an eleven-foot-high granite shaft on the location, paid for by funds they raised on their own. The following year, the state of Pennsylvania awarded every regiment that fought at Gettysburg $1500 to erect a monument on the field. And so, in 1888, the 121st survivors had the original monument moved to a secondary location on Hancock Avenue, and replaced it with the more impressive one we see on Reynolds Avenue today.

Several features of the Reynolds Avenue monument stand out. The die of the monument is designed to represent a large knapsack with blanket roll on top. The monument also contains bronze representations of the accoutrements of a soldier: a kepi, sword, musket, cartridge box and bayonet. The state seal and a circle (the symbol of the First Corps) show the regiment's affiliations. Finally, two interesting details set the monument apart from some of the more basic memorials on the field: a depiction of a bursting shell in the upper left corner, and an American flag draped over the upper right corner. Both of these details tell us a part of the 121st's experience at Gettysburg.

During the afternoon of July 1st, the men suffered severely from artillery fire, particularly rounds fired from Confederate batteries on Oak Hill. With little cover in the fields north of the Fairfield Road, and enfiladed by those Oak Hill batteries, the regiment shifted positions multiple times in an effort to gain some measure of protection. In depicting an exploding shell on the monument, the veterans told future generations that the awful experience of shells exploding in their midst remained one of their primary recollections of their experience 25 years later.

Later that afternoon, The 121st was outflanked and driven back in confusion, first to the Lutheran Seminary, and eventually through town after a brief last-ditch stand. Writing his report on the regiment's engagement while still on the battlefield the following day, Major Alexander Biddle highlighted the conduct of his Color-Sergeant:
I beg particularly to call attention to the meritorious conduct of Sergeant [William] Hardy, color-bearer, who carried off the regimental colors, the staff shot to pieces in his hands.
In his book, Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments as Told by Battlefield Guides, LBG Fred Hawthorne relates that Sergeant Hardy stopped to pick up a roofing shingle while retreating through town on July 1st. He used the shingle to splice together the shattered pieces of the flag pole. For the rest of the war, this spliced together pole reminded the men of the regiment of their horrific experience at Gettysburg, where the regiment suffered an astounding 70% casualty rate. 

Today, the image of the flag of the regiment, draped over the monument without a staff, along with the exploding shell, show us what the veterans of the 121st remembered about their experience at Gettysburg. Their monument stands as a testament to these stories, reflecting what they wanted us to learn about when we visited the site of their engagement. Speaking at the dedication of the monument on Pennsylvania Day in 1889, Captain Joseph Rosengarten pronounced: 
Leaving to others the general record and history of the war for the Union, let us strive to preserve every name and every deed that forms part of our record as a regiment, content in this, as we were in war, to do our duty without fear or favor.... The record of the One hundred and twenty-first is perpetuated on the memorial which we dedicate to-day, and it is one of which the survivors have just reason to be honestly proud.
So how can we encourage visitors to approach the Gettysburg battlefield as a commemorative landscape? First, we must get them to understand that the monuments have a history of their own. To accurately understand the meaning of a monument, you must know who placed it, why they placed it, and when they placed it. In understanding the motivations of the group that placed a monument, and the period of history during which it was placed, you can begin to unlock a monument's meaning and historical context. Just like any other source, monuments can tell us a great deal if we can place them within the proper historical framework.

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