Knighthood, Hubris and Death – Reflections on Photos from Gettysburg

by markacres on April 12, 2010 · 0 comments

By Mark Acres; Photos by Kip May

The Civil War produced an unprecedented number of monuments and memorials all across America. What town of a few thousand in the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, or parts of the Southwest does not have a Civil War memorial? Some are weathered granite; some are eroded limestone, so worn the inscriptions have disappeared; some consist of a plaque and some cannon and perhaps a pile of solid shot balls welded into a little pyramid, firmly anchored to a concrete square sunk in the ground, lest adolescent boys use them as giant pool balls on the courthouse lawn.

Gettysburg National Military Park contains more American Civil War memorials than any other place on earth. An estimated1400 tablets, markers, statues, plaques, and memorial stones adorn the hallowed ground at Gettysburg. Their presence helps create the atmosphere of the battlefield. The ground here glows with the sacred. The figures, faces, and writings on the monuments focus and reflect the sacred onto us.

These monuments, sculptures, markers, tablets, and plaques tell many stories. Their makers intended one set of stories; like all forms of human communication, they reveal more than their creators intended. They lend themselves to multiple, even conflicting, interpretations as each viewer’s own mind creates its own meaning – or meanings – from the scene and words before it.

The Virginia Monument at Gettysburg is a good example. This extraordinary work, featuring bronze sculptures by Frederick William Sievers, stands on Seminary Ridge facing outward toward Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. Facing forward from it offers a sweeping, panoramic view of the ground Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men marched across in their fateful charge on July 3, 1863.

The inscription at the base of the monument reads simply, “Virginia To Her Sons At Gettysburg.” Above the inscription stand six figures. A nearby sign explains, “The group represents various types who left civil occupations to join the Confederate Army. Left to right; a professional man, a mechanic, an artist, a boy, a business man, a farmer, a youth.”

High up above these common people, on a great, towering pedestal, the knight of the Confederacy sits in demi-godhood, mounted on his favorite horse, Traveller.

Kip May’s photograph captures the feeling of the monument well.

The Virginia Monument at Gettysburg

Those who commissioned the monument clearly stated their intention to memorialize the “knighthood” of Robert E. Lee, while paying homage as well to those more common men who served Virginia in the war. At the dedication ceremony on June 8, 1917, Virginia Governor Henry Swanson Carter said, “With the fine perception and real genius of the true artist, the sculptor chosen by the Commonwealth to express visibly and permanently the thought of the people, has placed about the base of this memorial the express presentments of the type of men who followed Lee. Here we see represented all arms of the service, and all the differing classes essentially typical of Southern life and manhood which combined to make the “Army of Northern Virginia” for so long a time invincible. The life, the ideals and the principles of these men as they stand cannot be exalted by human tongue or human hand, and yet we surmount this noble group by the inspiring figure of the one man, who, by the majesty of his character, the perfection of his manhood, and the glory of his genius, represents and embodies all that Virginia and her sister Southern States can or need vouchsafe to the country and to the world as the supreme example of their convictions and principles. He was the scion paramount of a long line of soldiers and statesmen, the consummate flower of a unique civilization which had gradually developed amid the stern experiences and vexed problems of a new land–the heir direct of the principles of English liberty consecrated by centuries of heroic struggle and ennobled by unswerving devotion to the lofty ideals that had their germ at Runnymede.”

He continued, referring finally to Lee as “the noblest and knightliest type of American manhood.”

Sadly, our inherited idealistic vision of knighthood diverges widely from the grim reality of the knightly chore. The lofty ideals developed in medieval mythology to soften, to make palatable, and to legitimate the ugly task of the knight: beating, stabbing and hacking his opponents into dead, bloody bits. Knighthood requires the hubris of socially legitimated killing; its very essence involves the assertion that other’s lives are worth less than the ideals, the values, even the material goals, of the knight’s society.

Lee’s hubris on July 3, 1863, exceeded that of the common knight. He believed he commanded an invincible army, one that with one last great charge, could defy the laws of war and physics to bring the victory his cause so desperately needed and upon which he had gambled all in his invasion of Pennsylvania. He alone held this belief, though perhaps George Pickett, another knight cavalier, may have briefly shared Lee’s confidence. The Virginia Monument stands at the spot where historians believe General Lee observed the great charge of July 3. Looking at him there, towering there above his men, knowing the delusion under which he launched that charge, one could see the monument as in this photographic variation: a vision of the storm of pride, delusion, and coming bloodshed swirling about that man as the moment of truth approached.

The Storm Gathers

What of the men who made that doomed charge? Another sculptor, on another monument, shows us their faces, images that sear themselves into the memory of all but the most insensitive. These bronze figures, the creations of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, evoke the deepest reactions of reverence, awe, empathy, and tragic sadness in those who view them today.

Camp Pope Publishing

Loyal Soldiers Charging Into Fire

In these faces we see the best in human nature – physical courage, comradeship, loyalty, grim determination, suffering with dignity, self-sacrifice – all displayed in the service of that tragic charge ordered by the great man on horseback who stands immortalized only a few hundred yards away. The creators of this, the North Carolina monument, meant it to complement Virginia monument. In his presentation address, former North Carolina Governor Angus W. McLean commented, “…we have been highly honored in the selection of a site for this memorial in such close proximity to the magnificent equestrian statue of General lee, the gift of our sister state of Virginia. The devotion to this matchless leader displayed by North Carolinians, who followed him to the end, was surpassed by none – not even by the valorous sons of his native state.” Gov. McLean’s eye could not discern the irony in the juxtaposition of these two monuments of vastly different focus. Perhaps only a contemporary eye, seasoned by the hubris of two World Wars, the wanton slaughter in meaningless attacks that marked the conflict in Korea, the wastage of life in Viet Nam, and the ongoing follies of the hatemongers and warmongers around the globe, can perceive vast distances, moral, social, and material, that separate the man on horseback from the troops sallying forth to their deaths at his bidding.

For death is the product of knightly hubris. While the Confederates could not break the Union’s famous “fish hook line” at Gettysburg, the human cost of their attempts and of the Union’s defense, in death, blood and emotional suffering cannot be fully calculated. Kip May, captures a great, sacred part of that death, blood, and suffering in this image from the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, an image he entitled with tearful irony.

The Fishhook Line

Is any of this meant to make General Lee a villain, or to imply that the Union cause enjoyed a moral superiority in its motives or direction?

No.

These reflections lead only into my own heart, the heart of an American, who, like many others, wanders in the agony of his own ambivalence at this ugly business of war. What is more admirable, more deadly, more proud, more doomed, more sacred, or more guilty, than a knight – of any era? Men and women believe the wars in which they choose to fight are good and necessary. We stand among the markers of the past and must ask if they were right. If they were not, are we?

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