President Donald Trump's supportive comments about Confederate monuments have focused new attention on long-ignored Civil War statues of a mustachioed infantryman standing at rest, wearing a greatcoat and holding a rifle barrel.
The nameless figure, known to many as the Silent Sentinel, gazes over town squares and courthouse steps in dozens of Southern towns – but not just there.
Many of the South's Silent Sentinels turn out to be identical to the statues of Union soldiers that decorate hundreds of public spaces across the North. Identical, but for one detail: On the soldier's belt buckle, the "U.S." is replaced by a "C.S." for Confederate States.
It turns out that a campaign in the late 19th century to memorialize the Civil War by erecting monuments was not only an attempt to honor Southern soldiers or white supremacy. It was also a remarkably successful bit of marketing sleight of hand in which New England monument companies sold the same statues to towns and citizens' groups on both sides of the Civil War divide.
It took some years before Southern customers caught on and sought to buy statues of soldiers who were more obviously Greys rather than Blues. Statue manufacturers eventually gave their Confederate models a slouch hat instead of the Union topper that looked more like a baseball cap, and a short shell jacket rather than the North's greatcoat, and a bedroll to replace the Union man's knapsack.
But dozens of statues North and South are all but precise copies. "I've spent hours staring at the creases on their pants and Yankee or Rebel, they're often exactly the same," said Sarah Beetham, an art historian at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who has studied the mass-production of Civil War monuments. Indeed, the Union and Confederate versions of the soldier statue were likely constructed from the same pre-fabricated parts.
The meaning of a memorial is never set in stone. The people who commission it might have one message in mind, but those who view the monument in generations that follow may draw entirely different lessons. One generation's hero becomes another generation's symbol of inhumanity – which is one reason why Americans eventually turned away from statues of great men on horses, instead choosing stones decorated with lists of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
In the case of the Confederate statues that have turned into powerful and, to many, disturbing symbols more than 150 years after war's end, the Southern women who paid for most of the statues between 1880 and 1920 said they wanted a place to honor their fallen husbands and fathers. But the communities that erected those statues were also looking for a way to assert their doctrine of white supremacy at a time when they were passing Jim Crow laws to codify the separation of the races.
To the Monumental Bronze Co. in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it was all just business. Union or Confederate, a customer was a customer, another $450 for a zinc statue that could mean whatever you needed it to mean. It was a business model that would appeal to Trump – a highly profitable product that could dress up a drab little town and make many Americans feel great again.
As Civil War veterans gained political clout near the end of the 1800s, they lobbied for pensions. In the South, their wives, sisters and daughters, organized as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, raised funds and purchased statues, sparking an unprecedented monument boom.
"Because of technological innovations in the granite and bronze industries, the price of these statues came way down," said Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. "Tiny little hamlets in New England and the Southeast could suddenly afford monuments."
Wealthier cities such as Richmond (Virginia) and Baltimore could afford to hire professional sculptors to create original works in bronze – often drawn from melted-down Civil War cannons – featuring generals such as Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. But those statues cost thousands.
The marketing mavens at Monumental Bronze served a much larger market with cheap soldier statues made of zinc – a bargain at $450 for a life-size model, $750 for the 81/2-foot jumbo version. Monumental offered something unique for the day: One-stop shopping. Order your soldier and Monumental would ship the pre-fabricated parts and send someone to your hometown to put it all together and get that baby up on a pedestal before the folks in the next town over got theirs.
The monument makers "weren't interested in ideology or the moral cause," Savage said. They just saw a market and lunged for it. Some northern foundries had made armaments during the Civil War and were now searching for a new line. They made cemetery monuments, steady work but not a path to explosive growth. War memorials looked promising.
About 2,500 soldier statues were erected in the North and about 500 in the South, Beetham said. This celebration of ordinary soldiers was a revolutionary break from the classic commemoration of great men on horses.
Monumental sold its statues as "everlasting white bronze," which they advertised as "a decided improvement" over marble and granite.
"This wasn't true," Beetham said. The zinc statues tended to flake apart at the seams, or lean backwards in a very unmilitary posture.
Still, those statues forever changed how Americans pictured Civil War combatants. "Our concept of what a Yankee or a Rebel looked like comes more from these postwar representations in monuments than from what they actually wore," Beetham said.
When southerners saw statues that looked too much like those depicting Union boys, they rebelled. In 1900, in Elberton, Georgia, an angry crowd gathered in the middle of the night and pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier because the sculptor – a Southerner, as it turned out – had put a long overcoat (a staple of Union uniforms) on the young man, probably to save the labor of carving out two full legs.
"It was the sculptor's poor first attempt," Beetham said. "The soldier looked like he was out of a Keebler elf cookie."
To the good folks of Elberton, he looked like a Yankee interloper. Down he tumbled.
Townspeople dug a hole in the middle of Elberton's main square and buried the offending statue face down. (It was dug up in 1982 and now resides in a local museum.) Elberton then replaced that statue with one from Monumental Bronze's catalogue.
"They replaced a monument made by a local Southern sculptor with a true Yankee interloper, made in Connecticut," Beetham said.
Southern communities were generally quiet about the source of their Confederate statues. The Daughters of the Confederacy had little choice but to buy from the North – or from Europe – because that's where the foundries were; for decades after the war, the South was both battle-ravaged and almost uniformly agricultural.
The Confederate monument boom was driven almost entirely by women because "it was politically dicey for Confederate veterans to be seen as advocating for their former cause," Beetham said. "The men want to be able to own property. They want to be able to vote. They can only do that if they've clearly laid down their arms and sworn allegiance to the United States. Women don't have to worry about any of that – they can't own property, they can't vote. So they hide behind their femininity and say, 'we just want a monument to have a place to lay our flowers.'"
The monument business fell off after World War I. Although many towns bought doughboy soldier statues, "the great man monument really fades out," Savage said. Sculpted tributes to common soldiers remained the rule after World War II as well – the iconic image of Iwo Jima, for example – but in the decades since, the influence of abstract art and rising cynicism about the role of great men in history have altered the nature of monuments. Abstract forms such as Washington's Vietnam wall and the 9/11 memorials in Manhattan and at the Pentagon became more common.
"Starting with World War I, there was a very strong anti-monument movement, in large part in reaction to the Civil War monuments," which were seen as glorifying war, Savage said. Instead, living memorials became popular – public spaces such as parks, fountains, stadiums and auditoriums named for veterans.