- - Wednesday, November 25, 2015


In the fall of 1865, America marked its first Thanksgiving since the end of the Civil War. Seven months earlier, after Robert E. Lee had surrendered on April 9, the North held a spontaneous jubilee. Cannons boomed, fireworks illuminated the night sky, bands played, people sang in the streets and crowds cheered the savior of the Union, Abraham Lincoln.

Seven months later, there was little to celebrate. Father Abraham was dead. The farm boys who had fallen at Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg and the Wilderness never came home to glean the fall harvest — instead of reaping the bounty of the soil, they lay beneath it. Some still languished unburied on neglected battlefields. “The empty chair” sat unoccupied at many Thanksgiving dinner tables. It was a bittersweet season of loss and remembrance. Death’s wartime harvest had yielded record crops — 750,000 dead “all over,” in Lincoln’s words, “this broad land.”

One hundred-fifty years later, nothing conjures the melancholy fall of ‘65 better than the most unusual monument at Gettysburg. On a battlefield studded with hundreds of memorials vying for attention, one stands apart as the only public sculpture in America meant to be viewed not from the front, but from behind. It stands on Little Round Top, the legendary promontory where on July 2, 1863, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin’s 20th Maine Infantry defended the hill against multiple Confederate onslaughts.

The monument portrays Gouverneur K. Warren, the 33-year-old brigadier general and New Yorker who ascended the hill on the battle’s second day and found the high ground unoccupied and undefended. Warren detected the Confederate advance from Seminary Ridge toward his position. A bronze tablet explains: “Led to this spot by his military sagacity, on July 2, 1863, General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, then Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, detected Gen. Hood’s flanking movement, and by promptly assuming the responsibility of ordering troops to this place, saved the key of the Union position.” The sculpture honors not heroism in battle, but strategic insight.

Seen from a distance, the figure appears to be a man, not a sculpture. He stands silhouetted against the skyline on the natural plinth of the same huge boulder where Warren once stood, as though he had clambered atop it a moment ago. All the surrounding footpaths lead to the back of the monument. Up close it becomes obvious that he is not flesh, but bronze. That view reveals little else. The figure is anonymous: His face cannot be seen, no symbols of rank are visible, and his name appears nowhere. He stands in a relaxed pose, right knee bent, gazing at the battlefield below. His extended right hand holds a pair of field glasses, as if he is about to raise them to eye level.

The monument’s traditional front reveals more. The dedication plaque is on that side. But few brave souls walk around to the front. The ground there drops to a hazardous slope where treacherous rocks and small boulders have wounded many a tourist’s ankle. The sculpture presents Warren as an observer. His face is alert and resolute. His eyes search the horizon. He carries a leather binocular case, not a pistol holster. His left hand rests on the hilt of his sword, but it hangs from his belt and has not been drawn for combat, remaining sheathed in its scabbard. He wears a general’s frock coat adorned with the buttons and shoulder straps of his rank.

The sculptor, Boston-born Karl Gerhardt (1853-1940) trained in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and then worked in Hartford, Conn. It was his only major work. A nasty dispute with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s family over ownership of his death mask ruined him, and he vanished into obscurity. In his last 40 years, he never created another sculpture. His last known occupation was New Orleans bartender.

Gerhardt’s only masterwork is a classic example of how the meaning of a work of art can change over time. Dedicated on Aug. 8, 1888, it had been erected to memorialize one man as an individual hero. That is all it would be today if it had not been placed to turn its back to the viewer. When viewed from the front, it becomes an antiquarian genre sculpture in an endless parade of 19th-century bronze effigies of mustachioed Civil War officers, most of them forgotten.

To understand the genius of its setting, imagine rotating the figure so that it now faced east, toward approaching visitors. It loses its symbolic power. But viewed from behind, it transcends its original meaning and becomes an American masterpiece. Its greatness lies in a perfect union of site, pose and effect.

Warren’s pose as an observer who looks away from us invites us to do the same and look past him, stand in his boots and see the battlefield through his eyes. For more than a century, millions of Americans have done that, and have made this place the most photographed and iconic monument on the battlefield. It no longer matters who it was once meant to honor. The sculpture has been transfigured into an omniscient everyman who invites us bear witness to the battle. It is not a panorama of officers and generals, but of common men.

Late autumn is the perfect season to visit Little Round Top. The fallen leaves create splendid, unobstructed vistas of the battlefield’s topography. The mood at the monument changes throughout the day, depending on the hour and the light. The best time to experience Gen. Warren’s timeless vigil is at dusk, when he faces the raking sun low in the western sky as it paints an amber sunset.

The month before his trip to the battlefield to give the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln issued a proclamation that fixed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. He commended to God’s “tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers,” and he beseeched the “Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation.” The Warren monument invites us to contemplate the sacrifice of those who fought not only at Gettysburg, but all the men — “the brave men, the living and the dead,” as Lincoln called them during his address at the Gettysburg cemetery — who fought in that terrible war.

James L. Swanson, senior legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is the author of “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” (William Morrow, 2007). He serves on the advisory councils of the Gettysburg Foundation and the Ford’s Theatre Society.

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