The Virginia Monument on Seminary Ridge was dedicated one hundred years ago this month, on 8 June 1917. The Gettysburg Battlefield is marked with considerably more Union than Confederate memorials but this is one of the most iconic, staring out as it does at the scene of Picketts Charge. In 1917 the Civil War battlefields were under the auspices of the War Department, who saw them not only as tourists attractions but living classrooms for soldiers. The unveiling was in June and not July because the event was combined with the United Confederate Veterans reunion held in Washington D.C. June 4-7. President Wilson reviewed the aging Confederate as they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was apropos; the president was a Virginian with strong sympathies for the Confederacy and himself a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. As they passed, some of the men good-naturedly shouted that they were willing to go to France and fight the kaiser.
Since the April 6 declaration of war on Germany, many were politicizing the Civil War (more than usual) and trying to shape the past as they could for their own purposes. Speaker of the House Champ Clarke claimed to an audience at the National Security League in late April that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had contained no conscripts. The reason he said this was to influence the ongoing conversation about a draft for the Great War. Needless to say, he was corrected quite quickly. That the statue was being unveiled just as the United States was ramping up to fight in the Great War was a coincidence. The Virginia Monument had been in the works for almost a decade. The plinth was erected in 1913, Lee atop along with the three statues at the base representing the Infantry, cavalry, and artillery three years later in December 1916.
Wilson did not attend the Virginia Monument unveiling on the 8th. It’s just as well. He had a poor showing at the 50th anniversary four years earlier, arriving late, shaking few hands, speaking tersely, and leaving as fast as he could. Assistant Secretary of War William M. Ingraham represented the Administration. Ingraham became Assistant War Secretary when Newton Baker took over that department in 1916. Prior to that he had been the mayor of Portland, Maine. One can imagine that Gettysburg had a special resonance for Ingraham; he was an 1895 graduate of Bowdoin College, the institution that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had overseen from 1871-83. As a Mainer, Bowdoin alum, and Assistant Secretary of War how could he not have known the story of the 20th Maine? Not surprisingly, Ingraham’s dedication had a strong reconciliationist tone. Early in he said of the present June 1917 moment, “We are now meeting at a critical time in the history of our country. War has once more come upon us, and all our manhood, wealth, and energy must be summoned to support the Government and bring to a successful termination the great struggle in which we are now involved.”
(images/top two, New York Times, middle, Jan Kronsell, bottom, LOC)