In plain sight

It’s an invisible monument, in plain sight.  The Soldiers Memorial sits in a prominent position on Park Plaza, the small, central park of Pittsfield, at the crossroads of main thoroughfares in western Massachusetts.   Thousands of people pass by it daily, but I wonder how many are like my wife who grew up in Pittsfield but did not know there was a monument in Park Plaza.  The last time the memorial appeared in the press was on the 110th anniversary of its dedication, in 1982.

On Park Plaza.  Photo: JDickson

On Park Plaza. Photo: JDickson

On the one hand, it’s hard to miss the 6-foot bronzed color guard soldier holding the flag, atop a 12-foot granite pedestal, dedicated just seven years after the end of the Civil War.   Divided into their regiments, the names of 102 Pittsfield soldiers who died during the war are inscribed on plaques on the granite sides.  Yet, so many of these statues of soldiers, or generals riding horses, populate our public places that they have lost meaning of memorializing the fallen, blending into the landscape almost like a telephone pole.

Each of the men on the plaque must have his own story worth telling, but lost now.  The pamphlet[1] memorializing the dedication ceremony on September 24, 1872 adds a little flavor.  The name of the conflict was “The Great Rebellion”, not the Civil War; the artist whose painting served as the model for the sculptor himself survived the Battle of Antietam but lost an arm.  The booklet includes the names of the regiments of the Pittsfield volunteers, and their engagements, from the well-known Gettysburg or Chancellorsville to lesser known battles with names like Yellow River, Grim Swamp or Cane River Crossing.  Soldiers “died from their wounds,” “killed in action,” “died in Libby Prison,” or simply “died.”

Reading from a 21st century perspective, several other story-lines with gender and racial overtones emerge.  The original idea for a monument was floated shortly after the end of the war, studied by several committees, including one of women who went on to raise money when the town delayed pursuing a memorial so that it could pay off its war debts first.  With $3000 in the bank, these women stepped aside (or were shunted?) when an all-male town council took over the plan, appropriated public funds, but still drew on the collected monies.  In addition, four soldiers from the all-black Massachusetts 54th (highlighted in the film Glory) died during the war, but an additional ten from Pittsfield served, including the chaplain Samuel Harrison, whose names are all included in the booklet.  An article from the local paper on September 25, 1872 which lists all the regiments of the 2000 soldiers who marched in the parade did not mention the 54th, leading to speculation on their absence – from  the story or the parade?

An orator spoke at the dedication, a professional orator, winner of prizes and contests: a certain George William Curtis, from New York, who speculated on how posterity would interpret the war.  Not once mentioning slavery, his reference was implicit but unmistakable:  “equal rights of every citizen are the sacred care of the whole people.”  Curtis thought to anticipate the day when a youth from Carolina or Georgia would stop at the statue and invoke that these “men died for me as well as for you.  They saved Carolina as well as Massachusetts.”  We’re not there yet.

How does this statue speak to us today?  Hardly at all, unfortunately.  This memorial invisible in plain sight, should tell us a lot, about a war which still divides us as it preserved and united, about the sacrifice it took to get to where we are, on race and gender, on patriotism, on loss.

[1] Proceedings of the Dedication of the Soldiers Monument, edited by J.E.A. Smith, Pittsfield MA, Chickering &Axtell, Steam Printers, 1872


On Park Plaza. Photo: JDickson
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