Niagara Gazette

November 10, 2012

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

The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette

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.

The anniversary coincided with the patriotic fervor stirred up by a visit to the U.S. by the Marquis de LaFayette, a general on George Washington's staff during the Revolution. During a circuitous tour that took him from Boston to New Orleans to New York, the aging French nobleman found few permanent monuments at the old battlegrounds he visited in 1824-25, including Yorktown, Va.

In fact, five days after learning of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, the Continental Congress approved the construction of a marble victory column at the site. But nothing was done until 1881, when construction of the Yorktown Monument was begun. It was completed three years later.

Even the site of one of the young nation's earliest and most famous battles, Boston's Bunker Hill, didn't get a permanent monument until 60 years after America's war for independence ended, Chambers said. In 1843, a 221-foot granite obelisk was dedicated on nearby Breed's Hill, where most of the fighting actually took place on June 17, 1775.

"To some extent, there initially may not have been an impulse to preserve battlefields, because the battles occurred in towns or in someone's field and you still were using them," said Maj. Wynne Beers, an instructor in the history department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "And until the introduction of steam power and railroads, it wasn't that easy for people to go and visit some of these places. There wasn't a tourist economy."

Many of the Revolution's battle sites were in then-remote areas such as Ticonderoga and Saratoga, which are easily reached today by car or tour bus. Two centuries ago, getting to those places involved long, arduous journeys by horseback, stage coach or steamboat. Those early visitors were the pioneers of our modern heritage tourism business, Chambers said. They toured the ruins, stayed at local inns, and collected war artifacts that littered the grounds alongside unburied skeletons, some dating back to the French and Indian War, he said.

"The customs of death were far different in that day and age," Chambers aid. "If you were fighting a war in a remote area, you wouldn't bury the dead because you didn't have time. A hasty burial at best is all you would do."