On Monument Avenue

On Monument Avenue | “To Her Loyal Sons Who Fought For The Union”


Discussions today about Civil War monuments focus on Confederate monuments and emphasize how the losers of the American Civil War sought to vindicate their cause for posterity. As a result, it is easy to forget that northerners erected more monuments to their soldiers, military units, and commanders than did former Confederates. Northerners, too, honored their dead and their heroes and the superiority of the cause for which they fought: “we were eternally right…and they were eternally wrong,” as one Union veteran declared.

Today there are, for example, approximately 280 Civil War monuments in New York State, 269 in Ohio, and 124 in Connecticut – states that experienced no significant military actions. Of the 360 entries in Timothy Sedore’s 2011 study of Virginia’s monuments, approximately 225 statues commemorate soldiers and commanders, while the rest mark military engagements in the war’s most bloodied state. (Different sources define “monument” differently so that counts and comparisons are necessarily tentative.)

As in the South, the majority of northern monuments are relatively simple statues to common soldiers erected in cemeteries or on courthouse greens and are dedicated to the men from that community who fought or died in the war. All but two of Ohio’s 88 counties have such statues; five different towns in Ohio’s Ashtabula County boast soldier statues dedicated between 1889 and 1914. Federal or Confederate, the bronze or stone figures of soldiers often came from the same manufacturer; differing only slightly in detail.

White northerners erected more soldier monuments in cemeteries and public spaces in the 1860s and 1870s than did white southerners. But, as in the South, the high water mark of monument building was the period from the 1890s into the 1920s. Of the 120 monuments in Connecticut for which dedication dates are known, 47 were dedicated before 1890, and 73 after.

The Confederate monuments in the North, notably those on the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields and in cemeteries honoring men who died in U.S. prison camps, also have their counterparts. Hundreds of statues to northern soldiers, units, and leaders are located on southern battlefields and at the Andersonville prison camp, primarily at sites under the protection of the National Park Service.

Northern states not only erected tributes to fallen soldiers on battlefields, but those states and their major cities built grand triumphant monuments far more ambitious than the South could hope to undertake. Among the grandest are the 284-foot high Indiana State Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis, dedicated in 1902 (which remains a centerpiece of the city) and the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Cleveland, dedicated in 1894, which consists not only of a 125-foot shaft and bas relief sculptures, but also a museum. 

The counterparts to the Monument Avenue statues in Richmond (the former capital city of the Confederacy) are, of course, the statues to U.S. military and political leaders in the national capital of Washington, D.C., including ten equestrian statues. Two of those are of U.S. military heroes who died during or immediately after the war, Winfield Scott and James B. McPherson, and were dedicated in 1874 and 1876. Those of the “Rock of Chickamauga,” Gen. George H. Thomas (who died in 1870) and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (who died in 1886) were dedicated in 1879 and 1896, while the North’s preeminent naval hero, David G. Farragut (who died in 1870), was honored with a statue in 1881.

Several other major statue projects in Washington experienced the same problems that plagued Monument Avenue, where efforts to erect statues to JEB Stuart, R. E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis began immediately after their deaths, but took decades to complete. Plans for a monument to Gen. (and presidential candidate) George B. McClellan began when he died in 1885 and received a $50,000 Congressional appropriation in 1901, but it was not completed until 1907. The grand equestrian statue in front of the Capitol building to General and President Ulysses S. Grant was dedicated in 1922, 37 years after his death and twenty years after planning began. The general who won the battle of Gettysburg, George Gordon Meade, received an equestrian statue on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1927, 45 years after his death and twelve years after Congress approved it.

Northern Civil War monuments provide a kind of contemporaneous experimental control group for analyzing the who, what, when, where, and how of Confederate monuments. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s widely-cited timeline of Confederate monuments suggests a causal link between the erection of those monuments and benchmarks in American, specifically Southern, racial history. That white northerners and southerners were erecting the same kinds of monuments to their respective soldiers and heroes at the same time suggests that,  for many people, there existed a common desire transcending region to mourn, honor, and remember men who fought or died in a cataclysmic civil war.