Honoring the Fallen: Among the First Monuments to the Civil War

Photo of people gathered at monument for dedication ceremony
Dedication of Monument on Bull Run Battle-Field, June / Alexander Gardner (1821 - 1882) / Albumen silver print on sketchbook mount, June 1865 / Collection of Bob Zeller

In the Gettysburg Address, even as he dedicated one of the first memorials to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spoke about how no words or monuments could adequately commemorate the sacrifice of those who served. Nonetheless, there was no stopping the desire to honor the soldiers and the events of the war by building memorials on the battlefields. The end of the war saw the beginning of a steady stream of monument-building that continued well into the twentieth century.

Among the very first monuments to be erected were two stone pyramids on the overlapping battlefields of the two engagements at Manassas/Bull Run. Compared to the elaborate statuary that came later, the monuments are rough-hewn—even crude—affairs made up of sandstone blocks; the seams of cement that hold the blocks together are clearly visible. The structures are decorated with the nose-cones of heavy artillery shells, and plaques dedicate the monument “to the patriots who fell” at the two battles.

The monuments were dedicated on June 10, 1865, with small ceremonies, including a military review and speeches. Noted Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner and his cameramen recorded the scene, and he included images of the dedication in his Sketchbook of the War.

It’s interesting that the monument to the second battle is more specific and localized—it honors only the casualties who died at Groveton, a location on the larger battlefield, instead of the battle in its entirety. Perhaps reading too much into it, it’s almost as if the monument builders were silently indicating how the scope and extent of the war had changed, expanding from the initial battle of Manassas on July 1, 1862, to the much larger affair a year later, on August 28–30.

Union Veterans' Memorial at Bull Run, made of stone
Union Veterans' Memorial, Bull Run, Second Civil War Battle of Manassas, Virginia / Carol M. Highsmith, (1946-) / Photograph taken between 1980 - 2006 / Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The first battle was very much helter-skelter—neither side really knew what they were getting into. Many of the Confederate forces were still wearing civilian clothes while they held off the Union attack up Henry Hill that was the battle’s climactic action. That hill, where the postwar monument is located, is the site where Thomas Jackson earned his famous nickname—“Stonewall”—as he rallied his Virginians. A giant statue of Jackson, seated on a very powerfully muscled horse (it looks nothing like his favorite mount, Little Sorrel), dominates the crest of the hill; the 1865 memorial is several hundred yards down the slope and looks forlorn in comparison.

Second Manassas was a much larger battle as the armies had grown and evolved over the course of a year’s fighting. It was part of Lee’s well-planned campaign to invade the North and came in the middle of a string of southern victories that rocked the North back on its heels and even threatened an end to the war. First Manassas took place on a north/south axis, while the second was fought out from west to east as Lee maneuvered his troops against a Union force, led by the overmatched John Pope, which was trying to cut him off.

Manassas was the location of so many battles and skirmishes because it was the site of a pivotal juncture of roads and a railway line; Jackson’s capture of a huge Union supply depot in the area forced Pope to move against the Confederates. Initial fighting opened up on August 28 at Groveton, the site of the later monument (which erroneously dates the skirmish to August 29), and raged over two days. The Union had the upper hand at the end of the first day, and Pope sent an optimistic telegram back to Washington announcing his imminent victory.

Unfortunately for him and the Union, Lee held a defensive line in an unfinished railway cut holding the Union in place until late on August 30, when he counterattacked. General James Longstreet’s division smashed into the Union troops and sent them reeling in retreat back up Henry Hill, which would be again the scene of the battle’s denouement, as it had been a year earlier.

The comparative casualty totals for the two battles are instructive. First Manassas had 1,124 Union casualties (460 killed) against 1,982 Confederate casualties (387 killed). The “butcher’s bill” at Second Manassas was horrendous but typical of the big battles that began in the second year of the war: 10,000 Union casualties and 8,300 Confederates killed or wounded.

With such a rate of loss, which would continue until war’s end, it was inevitable that American society, north and south, would attempt to make sense of and justify the meaning of the war by sanctifying it with memorials and monuments of all kinds. The desire was a powerful one, and the memorials at Manassas/Bull Run were the first, rough attempts for peacetime America to understand the war, both culturally and emotionally. Whether such memorialization brought peace and reconciliation to the families of dead soldiers, north and south, can never be wholly known.

— David C. Ward, Senior Historian, National Portrait Gallery

Civil War