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  • Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America by Thomas J. Brown
  • Robert Cook (bio)
Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America. By Thomas J. Brown. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 366. Cloth, $90.00; paper, $29.95.)

Recent controversies over the removal of Confederate statues have highlighted the centrality of Civil War memory to the ongoing culture wars in the United States. In this absorbing study, Thomas J. Brown assesses [End Page 432] the construction of Civil War monuments across the country in the decades after 1865 and convincingly connects the building of a new commemorative landscape to the rapid militarization of the republic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The result is the most important book on American Civil War commemoration to be published in several years—not only for the persuasiveness of the argument but also because it places art and architecture where they should be: at the vital center of memory studies.

Brown begins by reminding readers that today’s assaults on Confederate monuments were prefigured by the demolition of King George III’s New York statue at the start of the Revolution. But such iconoclasm, he makes clear, was not the American way during the nineteenth or the twentieth century. After a slow start in the early republic, four years of mass death in the first half of the 1860s triggered a rising tide of military monument building. Brown detects two principal phases of construction. The first occurred in a period of collective mourning in which the republican ideals of the antebellum years remained resonant. It began during the war itself and continued through the Reconstruction era. Monuments in this phase generally memorialized the citizen-soldiers who had died during the conflict rather than those who had survived it and often displayed the impact of grief on those who funded them. Some, like Martin Milmore’s strange Sphinx in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were allegorical. Others, like Harvard Memorial Hall, were utilitarian or depicted individual soldiers in contemplative mode and at rest rather than in the heat of battle.

By the 1880s, however, representations of the Civil War began to change. A second and far more active phase of monument building, lasting into the second decade of the twentieth century, witnessed a proliferation of new artistic representations of the conflict. It was fostered by the veterans’ determination to commemorate their own sacrifices as well as those of their dead comrades, by the growth of industrial capitalism, and by the United States’ emergence as a colonial power and the attendant need for a larger and more professional army. In three fine central chapters, Brown subjects these forms to expert scrutiny. He discusses the growing popularity of monuments depicting flag bearers, combat groups, and armed, muscular soldiers, identifying them as indicators of Americans’ newfound fondness for the military. He finds abundant evidence of governing elites’ determination to nurture civic ideals fit for the modern age in the building of equestrian statues of Civil War leaders like Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Robert E. Lee. The uncritical patriotism championed by many members of the Grand Army of the Republic and swelled by the war with Spain was [End Page 433] channeled into the construction of triumphal Union arches and columns in various cities, including Brooklyn, Indianapolis, and Cleveland, as well as into explicitly reconciliatory monuments that lauded North-South amity and helped Americans forget the ideological divisions of the 1860s. In his fifth and final chapter, Brown narrates the decline of Civil War monument building after 1914 while also making clear the impact of the second phase on Great War memorialization in the United States, evidenced by widespread commemoration of veterans’ military service (not overwhelmingly that of the fallen, as in Great Britain) and the relative absence of reminders of the terrible impact of war on families (as in France).

This book has many strengths: the author’s strikingly fresh interpretations of familiar and unfamiliar Civil War monuments, his conviction that sectional differences should not obscure fundamental similarities between northern and southern commemorative practices, his awareness of the central role played by class and gender...


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pp. 432-434
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