Civil War monument touches hearts

Brooklyn remembrance of sacrifice is in view of World Trade Center site

September 15, 2002|By Glen Collins | Glen Collins,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Two years ago, when the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn embarked on an ambitious $250,000 renovation of a famous and priceless Civil War monument, the notion of New Yorkers' heroic sacrifice in a traumatic conflict seemed patriotic and honorable, but remote.

Then came the worst terrorist attacks in the nation's history. The 135 workers at Green-Wood had a horrifyingly vivid view of the burning World Trade Center. Paper from the twin towers floated among the headstones.

In the urn garden, Richard J. Moylan, Green-Wood's president, found a singed ledger sheet from Fiduciary Trust, the cemetery's investment firm, which had offices in the south tower. And subsequently, as the months went by, came the grim succession of interments, as 37 terrorism victims - 11 of them firefighters - were buried in the cemetery.

`New meaning'

And so, this summer's rededication of the restored 1869 Civil War Soldiers' Monument has "taken on new meaning," Moylan said, adding, "It has gotten us thinking a lot about sacrifice."

The monument, octagonal and 35 feet high, reaches to the highest point in the park (which happens to be the highest hill in Brooklyn). These days, it is partly shaded by a gnarled century-old beech tree and a venerable maple.

Nearby, Civil War reminders abound. There are the graves of hundreds killed in the war, in addition to thousands of veterans who chose to be buried there.

Among the cemetery's 18 generals are two Confederate commanders - Robert Selden Garnett and Nathaniel Harrison Harris - who were interred in their Yankee family plots at Green-Wood.

Placed in 1869

The Civil War Soldiers' Monument is dedicated to "the Heroic Dead," as an inscription says, among the nearly 475,000 New Yorkers who served in the Union forces. In 1869, it helped to limn the reputation of the already-famous cemetery.

It is one of the city's oldest monuments to the branches of the armed services, erected only four years after the conflict.

"This is a wonderful Civil War monument, and it's very early," said Carol Grissom, a conservator at the Smithsonian Institution who is writing a book on zinc statues in America.

"Most Civil War monuments date from 20 to 30 years later, when the veterans were older and worrying that people might forget," Grissom said.

Although the monument was paid for by the city and was deemed an important expression of its civic will, the identity of its makers is debated by experts. Martin Milmore and James Batterson have been mentioned, along with several other possible designers and sculptors.

The ornaments of the monument are four free-standing, life-sized soldiers, each representing a division of the Union army: the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry and the engineers.

The statues are thought to be pure zinc, marketed as "white bronze" at the time; castings were durable but a sixth the price of bronze, according to Grissom of the Smithsonian.

Because zinc cannot hold its own weight in a life-size sculpture, the statues had internal iron armatures, which have fallen prey to severe rusting.

"It was wrong that it had been so neglected," Moylan said. "These beautiful sculptures were museum-quality pieces."

The zinc skin was pitted by acid rain. Some soldiers' hands were missing, along with the artilleryman's sword hilt and the cavalry officer's spurs. There was an active, buzzing beehive inside the forearm of the artilleryman.

Grissom said the statues were originally plated with copper to look like bronze, a process that explains why the zinc is now so pitted.

Scholars say the choice of zinc for the monument was curious, given its public financing and grand ambition. But it was constructed during the reign of Boss Tweed. "I can just see him saying, `Let's see if we can pass this off as bronze!'" Moylan said. (Tweed is buried nearby in Green-Wood.)

The restoration work began in 1991, when the monument's missing bronze commemorative plaques - vandalized during the 1960s - were resculptured to approximate surviving 1870s stereopticon photographs that depicted the originals in great detail.

But most of the restoration work was completed during the last two years, with the assistance of grants from the Cultural Affairs Department and the City Council. Additional restoration money came from the Green-Wood Historic Fund, the cemetery's Saved in Time refurbishment program and private donors.

Bronze statues

The base of the monument - a light-gray Maine granite - was cleaned and the stones were repointed with dark-gray mortar. And a circular granite ornamental fence was recently restored to its original position after 133 winters of frost heave. Also restored were bronze inscription plaques and the granite commemorative column with its bronze-leafed capital and octagonal pyramid cap, bedecked with eight cast-bronze stars.

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