Landscapes of Memory: Susan-Mary Grant Argues That the Cult of the Fallen Soldier Has Its Origins at Gettysburg and Other Battlefield Monuments of the American Civil War

By Grant, Susan-Mary | History Today, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Landscapes of Memory: Susan-Mary Grant Argues That the Cult of the Fallen Soldier Has Its Origins at Gettysburg and Other Battlefield Monuments of the American Civil War


Grant, Susan-Mary, History Today


THE UNITED STATES was the first modern nation to establish national war cemeteries, in the wake of the Civil War. The national cemeteries at Gettysburg and Antietam preceded by almost a decade those established in Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the nineteenth-century American military cemeteries bear striking visual similarities with those of the First World War in Europe, suggesting that many of those features that historians have identified as specific to that conflict had an early incarnation on the other side of the Atlantic. With these cemeteries the United States created a distinction between combatant and noncombatant within the burial sites, and it positioned them, wherever possible, on or close to the actual battlefields on which that war was fought. The relative lack of attention accorded America's Civil War in general studies of nineteenth-century warfare has meant that the development of the link between the nation state and the individual who fought in its name--a recognized development in the context of many European wars - has not been fully explored in the American case.

The American Civil War was, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, 'a people's contest,' primarily involving volunteer troops on each side. This aspect of the war proved crucial to the public response to death during the war and to the manner in which both the soldiers' sacrifice and the war's outcome--the restoration of the Union and emancipation--was commemorated afterwards. The parallels with earlier European conflicts, and with the First World War begin here: in America's need to acknowledge the sacrifice of the volunteer soldier whose life was lost in the service of the nation. As General Howard remarked when the cornerstone for the Soldiers' Monument was laid at Gettysburg in 1865, it was 'the private volunteer' who was the 'representative American soldier,' and it was around this ideal figure that much of the commemorative impulse cohered. Not until the Civil War, indeed, were monuments to the common soldier erected, but in the post-war period they quickly became the dominant iconic symbol of the war. Usually portraying an individual soldier holding a rifle that was either resting on the ground or, less commonly, carried in his arms, some 900 such monuments were commissioned and erected in the two decades following the war. They have been the focus of much debate, both at the time and since. However, in their rush to examine the very many and very prominent monuments raised to commemorate generals, regiments, soldiers, women and causes lost and found, historians have sometimes moved rather rapidly over the ground on which these monuments were erected. It was, first and foremost, the ground itself that was significant; the ground on which, both physically and symbolically, these monuments stand and on which their meaning is predicated. The cult of the fallen soldier, as it emerged in mid-nineteenth-century America, began with the place of burial.

Although far from well-organized, the initial impulse to 'lay off lots of ground in some suitable spot near every battlefield' for the purpose of burying the dead, as stipulated in the War Department's orders to commanders in the field, represented a conscious effort to make provision for the fallen, and a radical departure from traditional practice, both in Europe and America. In the second year of the war, no fewer than fourteen national cemeteries were established. The following year, the Civil War's most famous battlefield cemetery was inaugurated: Gettysburg. President Lincoln's words at Gettysburg on November 19th, 1863, are, of course, famous. But there was another speaker at Gettysburg that day, Edward Everett, renowned orator and professor of Greek literature at Harvard. In his speech he compared the battlefield of Gettysburg to that of Marathon in 490 BC and invoked history's most famous example of the funeral address, Pericles' oration for the Athenian dead. …

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Landscapes of Memory: Susan-Mary Grant Argues That the Cult of the Fallen Soldier Has Its Origins at Gettysburg and Other Battlefield Monuments of the American Civil War
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