Monuments make big impression

I made my first real trip to Washington, D.C., this summer. Until then, I had only glimpsed Washington from the back seat of our family car.

I was 15, and my father had taken a wrong turn out of Virginia. Repeatedly, we circled about Washington, wondering how we would ever find our way back to Rochester. Thinking my father had finally found the correct turn, we saw it yet again – the Washington Monument. Against the summer sky, the distant obelisk looked like a postcard – iconic, significant, but far away. Finally on the right road and heading northwest, I was glad I’d seen the Monument, though it existed in my memory only as a two-dimensional picture framed by a car window.

Monuments are funny that way. You have to see them in three dimensions to understand them; a look at the monument to Thomas Horan in Dunkirk’s Washington Park demonstrates this point. The plaques and etched phrases around the base tell the story of this statue: Sgt. Horan won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallant service at Gettysburg, and he was wounded in battle in 1864 but lived on until 1902; the monument celebrates him while commemorating “the deeds and services of the men of Dunkirk, 1861-1865.”

Impressive data, but it is really the towering height of the immortalized sergeant that conveys his importance, along with the importance of the Civil War he represents. You have to look a long way up to see the soldier’s face, his pride of bearing in a Union coat, his long weapon at the ready. There has never been a better time than the 150th anniversary of Sergeant Horan’s achievements at Gettysburg to spend a few minutes with this monument.

The Gettysburg battlefield is populated with statues, plaques, and sculpted monuments that bear out the complexity of this American trauma. An argument could be made for the Maryland monument as the quintessential Civil War monument. It features two wounded soldiers, one from each side, grasping each other as they struggle to find a resting place. A walk around the monument brings the battle to life as details emerge: belt buckles with opposing emblems; wrinkles and tears in the men’s clothing; grimaces on their faces; tense veins in their necks, arms, and hands. The statue depicts enemies who are brothers; doesn’t that say it all?

Other monuments extend the story. Some tell it as simply as words on a plaque fastened to stone. Some capture a real moment, as does the 90th Pennsylvania’s sculpted tree trunk with a robin’s nest sculpted onto a limb. What a potent message of survival and tenderness. Some monuments portray generals on horseback, with the inevitable impression from the viewer’s vantage point underneath the horse being the grand significance of generals.

There are monuments of buglers, soldiers aiming muskets, officers looking through binoculars. There are symbolic monuments, including Louisiana’s floating “Spirit,” the castle of engineering, and a large bronze book at the “high water mark” of Pickett’s Charge; Fredonia’s own Alonzo Cushing is inscribed in the book’s list of commanders.

A well-frequented monument is the memorial of the 11th Pennsylvania, whose survivors included a bronze figure of their mascot bulldog Sallie on the base of the monument. Sallie spent almost all four years of the war with her regiment, traveling with the soldiers, barking at Rebels, sitting with her dead companions until they were buried, and finally dying in battle herself. Today’s visitors leave dog bones for Sallie, as they do for the Irish wolfhound included in the monument to one of the Irish Brigades.

The biggest monument on the battlefield is the Pennsylvania dome. On a postcard, it is only a small, two-dimensional dome set in a blue sky. But no visitor can stand inside the chamber or climb the monument’s many stairs to the top without feeling the size of this tribute; something big happened here, it says, something important, so pay attention.

This was my impression of the iconic monuments in Washington. I’ve seen the Washington monument in dozens of pictures and through my car window. I’ve seen the Capitol building, the mall, the Lincoln Memorial, the buildings of the Smithsonian – all in two unimpressive dimensions. In person, these tributes to the might and significance of a nation are, appropriately, humongous. Imposing. And so much more captivating.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com