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Confederates struggle to memorialize their high water mark.

Gettysburg. The name brings forth immediate recognition in America’s collective consciousness, and rightly so. It was at Gettysburg that Pickett’s men charged and where four months later President Lincoln galvanized a nation with his immortal Gettysburg Address. It was at Gettysburg that 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers became casualties, making July 1-3, 1863, the bloodiest three days in American history. However, in the years following this carnage and destruction, another battle was brewing that would continue to rage into the 20th century.

The battle over postwar monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield again pitted Northerners against Southerners, but this time for the ultimate victory on  the conceptual fields of historical memory. While this battle lacked heroic charges and massive frontal assaults, the desire for success was fervent on each side. It did not take long for the importance of Gettysburg to be recognized and the drive to preserve the hallowed ground of the battlefield to begin.

Initial efforts at preservation were undertaken by Gettysburg residents. Within weeks of the battle, local lawyers David Wills and David McConaughy began the long campaign to protect the historic battlefield. McConaughy believed that the most fitting and proper way to honor the veterans would be to preserve and memorialize the fields where so many had given “the last full measure of devotion.” In a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain, he set forth his view: “There could be no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our Army on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, of July, 1863, than the battlefield itself, with its natural and artificial defenses preserved and perpetuated in the exact form and conditions as they were in during the battle.”

These efforts culminated in the creation of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. Officially established on April 30, 1864, by the Pennsylvania Legislature, the GBMA was the country’s first memorial and preservation organization. Its charter stated that the GBMA was dedicated to “hold and preserve the battlegrounds of Gettysburg…with the natural and artificial defenses, as they were at the time of said battle, and by such perpetuation and such memorial structures as a generous and patriotic peoples may aid to erect.” The legislature granted the GBMA $3,000 to “be applied to the purchase of portions of the battlegrounds.”

By the first anniversary of its creation, the GBMA had secured 75 acres of the battlefield. The GBMA remained the primary preservation entity until 1895, when it deeded approximately 600 acres of land to the War Department. With that transfer, the GBMA officially ceased to exist and the Gettysburg National Park Commission became responsible for preserving the battlefield and authorizing monuments. The property was officially designated the Gettysburg National Military Park, and it remained under the War Department’s authority until 1933, when the area came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Early in its preservation efforts, the GBMA acquired land and managed the initial efforts to create memorials. In 1879 the first regimental monument placed on the battlefield was erected near Spangler’s Spring to honor the 2nd Massachusetts, a move that opened the floodgates for subsequent monuments. Thus began a century-long process of sparring over memorials and memory— what can be seen as the second battle of Gettysburg.

No other battlefield in America has more monuments than Gettysburg—over 1,300 memorials and placards. The majority, nearly 85 percent, honor Union soldiers, while less than 15 percent honor Confederates. During the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, only a few notable efforts were made to commemorate the sacrifices of the Southern soldiers, and this neglect continued until the country celebrated the Civil War centennial.

There are several reasons for the dearth of Southern representation. First and perhaps most obvious, Gettysburg was a Confederate defeat, and few Southerners wanted to remember, much less memorialize, their loss in the immediate postwar years. One Confederate veteran remarked, “Gettysburg is too sad a field to attract many southerners.” Moreover, the cost of the war and the period of Reconstruction left the Southern economy in shambles, with little funding available for monument building. When Southerners began making efforts to memorialize their veterans, they did so at battlefields located deeper in the South, such as Chickamauga, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

The Union veterans, on the other hand, were eager to memorialize Gettysburg (the only major battlefield above the Mason-Dixon Line) as not only a major victory for the North, but arguably the turning point of the Civil War. Moreover, Union veterans met regularly at Gettysburg for reunions or monument dedications, as it was relatively close to home for many. By 1895, when the War Department assumed control of the park, there were 320 monuments—all Union— on the battlefield. By 1920, every Union regiment that had fought at Gettysburg had at least one marker.

While Union veteran organizations freely placed their monuments on the battlefield, Confederate organizations found the park’s rules more restrictive. They were confronted with a series of obstacles, most significantly GBMA regulations, which stipulated where they could place their monuments. Southern veterans were forced to negotiate not only with the GBMA but also with Union veterans before they could finalize locations.

The first attempt to place a Confederate monument on the battlefield was made in 1886 by veterans of the 1st Maryland Regiment. Members initially approached the GBMA in August 1885 about erecting a monument to their unit, which had fought on Culp’s Hill. The GBMA responded that permission would be “subject to the rules of the Association in regard to historical accuracy and inscription.”

The GBMA realized any decision made regarding the 1st Maryland’s request would set the tone for all subsequent decisions about Confederate monuments. Understandably, the association’s May 1886 minutes reflect its cautious approach: “An erection of an ex-Confederate monument within the Union line raises an important precedent, which should be wisely settled.”

Maryland was a border state during the war and contributed troops to both the Union and Confederate armies. There had technically been three 1st Maryland regiments present at Gettysburg, one Confederate and two Union. To avoid confusion with the two Union regiments, the Confederate unit was compelled to change its name to the 2nd Maryland.

The Confederate veterans decided it was more important to erect a monument to their comrades than to bicker over their unit’s official name. Therefore, the inscription on the monument reads in part, “1st Md., changed to 2nd Md. Infantry, C.S.A.” Hence the 2nd Maryland (a k a the 1st Maryland CSA) became the first Confederate regimental monument on the battlefield when it was dedicated on November 19, 1886.

The Battle of Gettysburg reached its climax on the afternoon of July 3 during the frontal assault commonly referred to as Pickett’s Charge. At 3 p.m. nearly 12,500 Confederate soldiers marched about a mile across open fields to attack the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge, known to history as “the Angle.” Less than half the Southern soldiers who began the attack returned unscathed. As Confederate veterans became interested in erecting a monument to their gallant charge, the Angle would again be the center of a bitter and acrimonious fight.

Militarily speaking, Pickett’s Charge was a terrible failure for the Army of Northern Virginia, but history has come to remember it as a heroic and noble effort—one that Confederate veterans hoped to memorialize for the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1888. In 1887 the survivors of Pickett’s command formed a veterans organization, known as the Pickett’s Division Association, and began the process of erecting a memorial to their fallen comrades at the Angle.

Realizing the symbolic importance of the monument, members of the association diligently debated a proper inscription and design, and eventually approved a 12-foot-high structure made of Richmond granite. The veterans selected James Kemper, the only brigadier general in Pickett’s Division to survive the attack, to deliver the dedication speech. But Kemper declined the invitation due to failing health. His inability to deliver the dedication was the first in a series of problems for the Confederate monument.

On May 5, 1887, the Pickett’s Division Association approached the GBMA for approval to erect its monument inside the Union line at Cemetery Ridge, the point of the division’s deepest penetration. The GBMA balked at the idea, arguing that this would violate the line of battle rule, which stated that “regiments erecting monuments on the ground of the Association would be required to locate and place them in the position held by the regiment in the line of battle….” The GBMA stated that the location of the Confederate monument would “be in violation of its rule requiring all monuments [to be] on the line of battle.”

Curiously enough, that rule was enacted at the same meeting where Pickett’s veterans requested approval for the location of their monument. As Cemetery Ridge, where the fighting actually took place, was the Union line of battle, the GBMA stipulated that only Union monuments could be erected there. The Confederates were only allowed to memorialize their efforts on their line of battle along Seminary Ridge, from which they started their heroic but futile march. The rule was obviously aimed at the Confederates, who wanted to place their monuments along Cemetery Ridge, the site of their greatest achievements and heaviest casualties, rather than placing them in an area where little action occurred.

Though no official action was taken on the Pickett’s Division Association’s request, there was a sense a defeat among its members. Several weeks later representatives again traveled to Gettysburg to meet with the GBMA and argue their case. Their proposal again met resistance, but the GBMA encouraged them to erect the monument along Seminary Ridge. If a statue was placed there, the GBMA reasoned, “It would occupy a commanding position, possibly attracting more attention than elsewhere and be a notable beginning of a new departure in the lines of memorials that are now encircling Gettysburg.” The members of the Pickett’s Division Association were understandably disappointed by the decision.

The controversy surrounding the Pickett’s Division monument intensified even as plans were being made for the 1888 reunion. Some Union veterans and politicians were outraged at any Confederate attempt to memorialize within the Union lines. Pennsylvania Governor Joseph B. Foraker threatened to use the National Guard to “prevent such a sacrilege.” Meanwhile, defeat and anger over the rejection of their monument at the Angle led the Pickett’s Division members to decline to participate in the reunion. Union veterans of the Philadelphia Brigade Association, who had invited them, encouraged the Southerners to reconsider. The Philadelphia Brigade Association pledged its assistance in obtaining approval to erect the monument at the Angle if they attended. These Philadelphia veterans had been present at the Angle during the assault, and were directly involved in repulsing the charge. They believed that their own valor and heroism could only be properly measured with an understanding of the enemy that they had defeated, and an attack that a Union veteran grandly described as “a charge not surpassed in its grandeur and unfaltering courage in the annals of war since time began.”

The Pickett’s Division veterans ultimately accepted the invitation. That 1888 reconciliation of Confederate and Union veterans, shaking hands with each other along the same stone wall where they had once met in hand-to-hand combat, served to solidify the memory of Pickett’s Charge in the American consciousness. During the reunion, the impetus to build such a Confederate monument was strengthened by the added support of Union organizations. The Philadelphia Brigade Association drafted a resolution that read: “By the members of the Philadelphia Brigade Association…Pickett’s Division, and others here present…the Gettysburg Memorial Association [is] asked [by] the organizations named, [for] the privilege of erecting a monument commemorative of American heroism. The farthest point reached by Pickett’s Division inside the Union line, near the ‘Bloody Angle,’ is suggested as the spot for the erection of the said monument.”

Holding fast to the line of battle rule, however, the GBMA again denied permission. After that rebuff, Pickett’s veterans voted to place their monument at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. On October 5, 1888, it was erected there above the graves of many of the Gettysburg dead. Nearly 150 members of the Philadelphia Brigade Association attended the ceremony.

While early hopes for a Confederate monument to the participants of Pickett’s Charge were not to be realized at Gettysburg, the Confederates were allowed to honor their fallen brothers in arms with a compromise marker. The GBMA finally relented and allowed a small, inconspicuous monument honoring Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead to be placed at the Angle, where he had been mortally wounded. Funds for that project were raised with the assistance of the Philadelphia Brigade Association, which held a series of lectures on Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge and donated the proceeds. The Armistead marker was dedicated in December 1887. Visitors today are largely unaware of any controversy surrounding the Armistead marker, or that it was the result of a cooperative effort between Confederate and Union veterans.

The Confederate attack of July 2 on Little Round Top has become one of the most memorable assaults of the battle, and perhaps the entire war. General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander at Gettysburg, in an effort to build on the success and momentum of July 1, ordered a series of attacks on the Union line the next day. Alabamians and Texans assaulted Little Round Top in an attempt to gain control of that pivotal high ground from the 20th Maine and other Union regiments.

The 15th Alabama had just concluded a forced march of 25 miles with little or no water, and upon arriving on the battlefield was immediately ordered to attack. The fighting climaxed in a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine that drove the 15th Alabama from the hill.

When the Union veterans later returned to Gettysburg and began to memorialize their victory, Little Round Top became a prime location for monuments and celebrations. The 20th Maine Monument, for instance, was dedicated on October 3, 1886, and marked the unit’s position when it had been ordered to hold at “all hazards.”

Like the members of the Pickett’s Division Association, Alabama veterans also wanted to erect a monument to those lost within Union lines. In November 1902, survivors of the 15th Alabama met in Montgomery, led by Colonel William C. Oates, the regiment’s former commanding officer. While the 15th Alabama had suffered heavily in the attack, Oates mourned the death of one man in particular, his younger brother John. That personal loss gave special significance to Oates’ involvement with the plan.

After the war, Oates had returned to Alabama, which he served as a representative in Congress and as governor. When Oates, nearing 70 in the fall of 1902, began preparations to memorialize Alabama’s losses at Gettysburg, he informed the Park Commission of his intentions to “erect a simple inexpensive monument about where the center of my regiment stood at the most advanced spot, and where my brother and other officers were killed, and where I sustained nearly all my losses.” Oates outlined the design and inscription himself. It was to read: “To The Memory of Lt. John A. Oates and his gallant Comrades who fell here July 2, 1863.” He was prepared to pay for the monument out of his own pocket.

Oates was denied permission because, once again, the monument would violate the line of battle rule. Furious, he responded that “requiring monuments to be put by Brigade thus marking the position of a regiment in the line of Brigades at the point where formed for beginning the attack, will simply prevent any from being erected to the Confederates.” He continued to petition the Park Commission to allow the monument to be erected on Little Round Top.

At the time, the Park Commission comprised four veterans, including William A. Robbins, a major of the 4th Alabama—one of three Alabama regiments that had participated in the attack. Robbins frequently encouraged his Southern comrade to erect a monument along Seminary Ridge. He wrote to Oates, suggesting: “Why don’t you put your monument at the point in the Confederate line where the Regt. started into battle and then record in the Inscription thereon what the Regt. did in the battle?…This would put the Monument alongside of the beautiful Confederate Avenue where it would be much more conspicuous than it would at the south end of Little Round Top where you have thought of placing it.”

Robbins was unable to enlist support from Oates and other Confederate veterans, who were not interested in placing monuments where they began the attack. Oates intended to place the 15th Alabama monument inside the Union line at Little Round Top to point to the fact that the Confederates had temporarily broken through the line of the 20th Maine.

But veterans of the 20th Maine and their commander, Joshua L. Chamberlain, were not about to allow a Confederate monument inside their line of defense. Chamberlain, like Oates, had returned to his native state after the war and served as its governor. Thus when decisions regarding postwar commemoration were being made, Chamberlain was in a position where he could look out for Maine’s interests as well as his own. The Park Commission, after failing to compromise with Oates, contacted Chamberlain in the hope that he would offer further justification for the commission’s denial.

Surprisingly, Chamberlain had no objections to a Confederate monument on Little Round Top; he did, however, object to where Oates intended to place the marker. He stated that the monument was fine, adding, “but I should expect it to be placed on the ground where [the 15th Alabama] actually stood at some time during the battle—so that it might not only represent the valor of a regiment but the truth of history.” According to Chamberlain, the 15th had never broken his line.

Upon hearing Chamberlain’s response, Oates contacted him directly. In an April 1905 letter, Oates insisted that his command had indeed broken the Union line, and had the right to have its monument reflect that. Chamberlain and the Park Commission refused to acquiesce. After three years of trying to establish a monument on Little Round Top, Oates finally gave up. To this day only Union monuments stand on that ground.

By the end of the 19th century, Confederate veterans were well aware that attempts to memorialize their sacrifices at Gettysburg were going to face serious resistance. They had been compelled to compromise on locations or denied permission to construct memorials altogether. It would not be until the 20th century that monuments to Southern soldiers began to appear in significant numbers on the battlefield. But unlike the Union monuments, which represent every Federal regiment present at Gettysburg, the Southerners are memorialized primarily by state monuments.

The first major Confederate memorial, and first Confederate state monument to be erected on the battlefield, was the Virginia Monument. It seemed only fitting when the South came to honor its efforts at Gettysburg that its first monument should prominently feature Lee, the Confederacy’s greatest general. At the base of the memorial are seven bronze figures, representing the diverse population that comprised the Army of Northern Virginia. Dedicated on June 8, 1917, it overlooks the spot near where Lee witnessed Pickett’s Charge.

The Virginia Monument opened the doors for later Southern state memorials, and eventually all 11 states that contributed troops to the Confederate cause at Gettysburg followed suit. While the state memorials are grand and romantic symbols, it is important to remember that the veterans did not erect them. The majority were commissioned during the 1960s and 1970s by Southerners who were generations removed from the death and destruction of the actual battle. Created a century later, their memorials to Gettysburg tend to perpetuate the notion of the Confederate “Lost Cause.” The monuments erected by the veterans are generally of a somber nature, whereas the Confederate state memorials are characterized by a degree of romanticism.

One of the most eloquent and elaborate of these is the Mississippi State Memorial, dedicated in 1973. It depicts two infantrymen, representing the members of Barksdale’s Brigade in its advance on the Peach Orchard on July 2. One figure, carrying the Confederate battle flag, has fallen mortally wounded, while his comrade, using his musket as a club, continues to protect him and the banner. The elaborate design wonderfully complements the emotional inscription that reinforces the idea of the courageous Confederate soldier: “On this ground our brave sires fought for their righteous cause. In glory they sleep who gave to it their lives: to valor they gave new dimensions of courage, to duty its noblest fulfillment, to posterity the sacred heritage of honor.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that a struggle would occur as both South and North realized the importance of Gettysburg. Both sides wanted to commemorate their version of the battle and erect monuments to interpret it for future visitors. In September 1888, at the dedication of the 107th New York Infantry Monument, General N.M. Crane declared: “This monument will be a lasting record of your devotion and bravery as long as granite will endure. Future generations will visit this famous field, and gaze with wonder and admiration upon this spot, made sacred by your blood and devotion.”

In the immediate battle of postwar commemoration at Gettysburg, the Union soldiers were clearly victorious, and even today the vast majority of the monuments there are dedicated to Federals. It can be said that the Confederates were defeated twice at Gettysburg, once during the battle and again over efforts to memorialize the battlefield.


Jennifer Murray writes from Auburn, Ala. For additional reading, see Pickett’s Charge in History & Memory, by Carol Reardon; and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg, Vol. I, by David G. Martin.

Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here