The missing monuments of Gettysburg

Posted 8/10/19

Our summer road trip took us from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina to Niagara Falls, New York. On the second day of the trip, we abandoned our plans to see Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, …

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The missing monuments of Gettysburg


Our summer road trip took us from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina to Niagara Falls, New York. On the second day of the trip, we abandoned our plans to see Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and instead drove in the direction of Gettysburg.

There was much more to see in Gettysburg than we realized. The complete self-guided tour encompasses 24 miles and 16 stops and can take up to three hours to finish. Since we had limited time, we quickly settled on finding the battlefield and the site where President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address.

We picked up a free map in the visitor center and spent $10 on another map that had three times the information. The latter proved to be a good investment after we made the same loop twice and I still couldn't tell Zac where we were.

Ironically, our first significant stop was the site of the battle's end. It was here that 12,000 Confederate soliders participated in "Pickett's Charge." Essentially, they moved across an open field for nearly a mile as Union soldiers shot at them. A marker has been placed on the spot where General Lewis Armistead and some Confederate soldiers breached the stone wall but were overwhelmed. The spot is sometimes referred to as the high water mark of the Confederacy.

Next we made our way to Confederate Avenue, which gives a view of the battlefield from the Confederate side. Along this road is where we stumbled upon the monument to Lt. General James Longstreet, who had not supported Pickett's Charge and was with General Robert E. Lee during the surrender at Appomattox. 

According to some research I did later, Longstreet became a scapegoat after the war for those who loved Lee and embraced the "lost cause." This might explain why his statue is hidden in the woods instead of in a place of prominence like so many others. It has only been there since 1998, making it one of the last monuments placed at Gettysburg National Military Park.

The Alabama monument, dedicated in 1933, was not far away and unlike Longstreet's statue, was much too large to be missed. According to the Gettysburg Stone Sentinels website, it "represents the Sprit of Alabama pointing the way forward while a wounded soldier passes a cartridge box to his comrade, representing the determination to continue the struggle. The monument stands where General Evander Law’s Alabama Brigade began their assault toward Little Round Top on July 2nd after a grueling 18 mile approach march."

In Gettysburg, you can't throw a rock without hitting a monument, statue or marker of some kind. As we made our way to Little Round Top, Zac searched in vain for a memorial to Col. Joshua Chamberlain, portrayed by Jeff Daniels in the 1993 film "Gettysburg." Chamberlain is best remembered for leading the 20th Maine Infantry in a bayonet charge down Little Round Top on the second day of the battle after they ran out of ammunition. 

A quick Google search led me to an article on the Gettysburg National Military Park blog titled "Joshua Chamberlain, Little Round Top, and the Memorial That Never Was."

The article includes comments from several of Chamberlain's contemporaries who accuse him of using his considerable writing talents to bolster his reputation in the post-war years. One said frankly, "he was absolutely unable to tell the truth and was of an inordinate vanity."

After the release of "Gettysburg," people flocked to Little Round Top and searched for a memorial that does not exist. 

Apparently there were efforts in the early 1900s while Chamberlain was still alive to get a statue placed at Gettysburg, but the project died. The blog article suggests that Chamberlain himself might be the reason. A letter written in 1909 from Col. John P. Nicholson, chairman of the Gettysburg National Park Commission, states, "Thanks for the note and information regarding the location for Chamberlain. If he has not interest enough in the matter why should we push him. Let it go."

The blogger added, "Chamberlain’s reluctance to his own planned memorial does draw into question the conclusions of Spear, Norton, and others regarding his alleged egotism. Do self-aggrandizers shun memorials in their honor? The answer might be that Chamberlain’s motivations were misunderstood, or that there were limits to how far he was willing to go to further his status as one of the heroes of the battle."

Zac was somewhat disgusted to hear this news but not as disgusted as I was when we arrived at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Directly inside the gate, we found the Lincoln Address Memorial, which includes a bust of Lincoln, the text of the Gettysburg Address and the text of the letter inviting Lincoln to speak. Casual visitors might assume that this memorial marks the spot of the speech, but it does not. It is unique, however, in being one of the only memorials ever erected to commemorate a speech. 

A sign at the memorial directs visitors to the Soldiers' National Monument, identifying it as the spot from which Lincoln spoke. I told Zac that this didn't make sense based on some reading I had done. Most historians agree that Lincoln spoke from inside the adjoining Evergreen Cemetery, separated from us by an iron fence.

The Kentucky memorial, adjacent to the Soldiers' National Monument, clearly states, "Kentucky honors her son, Abraham Lincoln, who delivered his immortal address at the site now marked by the soldiers' monument." 

It turns out there there is no consensus on the exact location where the speech was given and therefore no accurate marker exists. I found several websites that essentially said the speakers platform could have been between these handful of graves over here or those handful over there.

There seems to be almost total agreement, however, that the signage in the cemetery is inaccurate, and I can think of no good excuse for allowing thousands of visitors to walk away thinking that they have been to "the spot" when they have not. 

Misleading markers aside, it was an unforgettable experience to stand in that cemetery reflecting on those who were laid to rest there as well as to read those immortal 271 words uttered there by a president whose time would run out at the same time as the war's end.