We are almost four months into the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, The New York Times is running a daily blog recapping events to the day, evoking immediate comment and argument from the multitudes who are still fighting it – just verbally this time. The re-enactors are gearing up for the ‘big’ ones, had a warm up a week or so ago with the anniversary of First Manassas (Bull Run); the National Parks are already seeing an increase in attendance that will reach a flood by the summer of 2013.
The Parks are an eclectic experience: peaceful, evocative, serene, haunting, bewildering in a ‘what made them do this’ sort of way, fascinating, somber, bucolic . . . . and occasionally annoyingly kitschy, overbearing, celebratory where it most definitely should not be. I am referring here not to the gift and antique shops that crowd the edges of the parks vying for space with fast food restaurants and cheap hotels, but to the monuments that litter (yes, I deliberately chose the verb) some of the fields.
Gettysburg is particularly plagued by overwhelming, incongruous, baroque monuments, many of which shatter sight lines and loom over the visitor. If it looks as if there were a competition among the states to outdo each other in honoring (or exaggerating) their contribution/sacrifice at the worst battle ever fought in the Americas, it is because there most certainly was. By that measure Pennsylvania won with the Pennsylvania State Memorial, an Arc de Triomphe shaped, Lincoln Memorial sized edifice on Cemetery Hill that is simply inescapable.
When you walk the field you quickly become inured to the statutes and monuments, they tend to blend into one another, they are not even individually identifiable after the first ten or so (except, of course, the PA monument). In short, they have little effect on the visitor.
There is, however, a remarkable exception. It is tucked away in a corner of the Wheatfield, scene of a vicious, incredibly brutal, afternoon long fight on July 2nd, 1863, that eviscerated a Union Corps and where the Confederacy came within a hairsbreadth of breaking the Union line. It is nestled in a copse of trees in a still, quiet, sun dabbled section of field a little bit off the usual visitor’s trek and well away from traffic.
The Irish Brigade Monument. By July, 1863, the Irish Brigade, a potent Union fighting force, had been bled white. The Wheatfield ended them. Even at first glance, the monument is visceral. A bronze and green granite Celtic Cross . . . . and curled around the base a sleeping, life-sized bronze Irish Wolfhound. It’s the Wolfhound – traditional Irish symbol of loyalty – watching over the field that gives the place its poignancy. What better symbol than a faithful dog to drive home the fact that 198 of the 530 Irishmen in the Brigade never left that place.
The sculptor, Rudolph O’Donovan, created this in 1888. On July 2nd, 1863 he was also in Gettysburg . . . across the lines, in the Confederate Army.