Civil War History Programs with the Resident Associates Program
past articles

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Vol. 10

Tour Review - The Civil War Enshrined in the Nation's Capital

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 10

"The entire city of Washington D.C. is a monument to the Civil War." So says tour leader Professor Edward C. Smith, and so began our tour of just some of the major Civil War monuments in our city.

Our first "monumental" stop was at Lincoln Park, formerly a hospital site during the Civil War. Dr. Smith began with the newest statue there, that of Mary McLeod Bethune. She is depicted as handing a diploma to two school children, symbolically offering them freedom via education and hard work. Opposite her in the park is Emancipation. In this statue, just as Bethune offers a new form of freedom to her generation, Abraham Lincoln's hand is seen above the shoulder of a rising slave, emancipating a previous generation.

Directly opposite Lincoln Park to the west, is the awe-inspiring statue of Ulysses S. Grant at the Capitol's reflecting pool. It took sculptor Henry Shrady 14 years, and his life, to complete this statue, the second largest equestrian statue in the world. Dr. Smith discussed the positioning of this statue. Grant's back is toward the Capitol Building, as if defending it; Grant faces Lincoln, sitting in his Memorial across the National Mall; then our vision is drawn beyond the river, into the Virginia hillside where Robert E. Lee's home, Arlington House, can be seen--completing a Civil War drama in marble, bronze, and brick.

We then bussed by several other pieces, including tributes to General Meade; and the statues of Generals Scott, Hancock, Sherman, and Thomas. Sheridan's statue is the farthest west of the Civil War generals, fitting, since his life after the war was spent on the Western plains.

Last, we toured the unfinished site at the African American Civil War Memorial. It is located in the Shaw District of Washington, across the street from Grimke School, named for the ex-slave, author, and Harvard Law School graduate, Archibald Grimke. Dr. Smith contrasted the events in dedicating the other monuments--parades, Presidents in attendance, and school closings--with the quiet dedication of this small but elegant statue commemorating African Americans who participated in the Civil War. Currently unfinished, the monument will be surrounded by low, concentric walls, listing the names of the 180,000 African American soldiers, sailors, and citizens, who died in the war. Most were never properly buried. After more than 135 years, this would be the only memorial to them, giving their many descendants a focal point to commemorate their lives and sacrifices.

Dr. Smith's narratives included not only the history, but also why and how the subjects of these statues were selected and placed. And yes, he told us about the politics behind these decisions, and the impressions, both good and bad, these decisions have left on the succeeding generations.

Professor Edward C. Smith is the Director of American Studies and Special Assistant to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University.