Niagara Gazette

Local News

November 10, 2012

Historian: Monuments to early U.S. vets were overdue

Niagara Gazette — ALBANY — When Americans gather Sunday at war memorials, battle monuments and military cemeteries to honor the nation's veterans, it may appear to some that such places have existed since the United States was founded 236 years ago.

Not so, says the author of a newly published book that details the nation's belated, haphazard approach to establishing formal memorials, monuments and marked burial sites for veterans of its earliest wars.

In his book, "Memories of War: Visiting Battlegrounds and Bonefields In The Early American Republic" (Cornell University Press), Thomas Chambers writes that it was well into the 19th century before Americans seriously began considering marking Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields with monuments and memorials, and how in some instances the skeletal remains of the fallen remained unburied for decades.

It wasn't until after the vast bloodletting of the Civil War that the nation took retroactive steps to pay tribute to those earlier veterans, Chambers said. Up until then, America was "too busy building economies and cities and growing and expanding to necessarily worry about the past," he said.

The practice of erecting war monuments while battles are still fresh in everyone's memory dates to ancient times. The Romans excelled at it, perhaps most famously with Trajan's Column, a 125-foot-tall marble structure featuring a continuous relief depicting their legions defeating the Dacians in the early second century A.D. Napoleon Bonaparte, never shy about touting his own martial successes, ordered the construction of Arc de Triomphe after his victory at Austerlitz in 1806. Today it's one of France's most famous monuments.

"It's not new," Chambers said, "it's just that Americans take a lot longer to get around to doing it than others do."

Chambers, a history professor at Niagara University in western New York, said it wasn't until the 50th anniversary of the Revolutionary War approached in the mid-1820s that Americans really took notice of the nation's dearth of monuments at the places where the patriots fought and died.

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