A crowd of 4,000 gathered in the chilly, late-spring rain to dedicate a memorial to America’s war dead in Newark’s Military Park. It was 1926, only seven-and-a-half years since the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War. Veterans stood on the dais shoulder-to-shoulder with New Jersey Governor Harry Moore, Newark Mayor Thomas Raymond, and a handful of uniformed Army and Navy officers. Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur addressed the crowd:

“The monument dedicated today is intended to express, as nearly as can be done in bronze and stone, our sense of obligation to the soldiers and sailors of the United States, not only in the World War, but in all previous wars…”

It was a moment of profound emotion, a mingling of grief and gratitude that had been repeated at dedications across the country. Later that year, the New York Times estimated that American communities, governments, and others had spent $100 million ($1.4 billion in 2018 dollars) on memorial projects of all kinds since 1918. “The spirit that led our legions to France is no less evident in commemorating their deeds,” the reporter observed, while noting that, in their enthusiasm, some monuments showed “signs of hasty execution.”

No one expressed any such misgivings about Newark’s “magnificent memorial.” Financed through a bequest by Newark businessman and Civil War veteran Amos H. Van Horn, it was designed and executed by Gutzon Borglum, the closest thing to a celebrity artist in the United States, a man the press often called “America’s greatest living sculptor.”

The “Wars of America” monument is unique among Great War memorials, and not just for its massive scale and “magnificence.” While other communities commemorated 1914-1918 with tombs to unknown soldiers, and somber bronze sentries guarding the memory of the fallen, Newark’s memorial is both aggressively dynamic and militaristic.

Sitting at the north end of the park on a six-ton block of marble, the enormous bronze sculpture forms the hilt of a reflecting pool in the shape of a medieval sword. (The city of Newark now plants flowers along the blade and cross-guard.) Two officers, one a general of the Civil War, and the other, with his sword drawn, from the Revolutionary War, stand resolutely in the vanguard of 42 human figures – and two horses – representing the history of American military valor.

“The design in its dramatic sense is conceived as a moment of crisis, when the life of the State is threatened, and depicts America’s manner of meeting such crisis,” Borglum explained to the crowd at the dedication ceremony. The war leaders stood at the forefront, “the central part action and struggle and the great background the civil body, the home life, adjusting itself to the necessary sacrifice.” The figures represent soldiers and sailors from all of America’s wars, from the Doughboys of the fields of Flanders, to the sailors and riflemen of the Civil War and the war with Spain.

Yet Borglum also intended his sculpture, as a totality, to offer a compelling narrative of American history, as he understood it, from the nation’s revolutionary foundation, to the Civil War. That war, a “disagreement among its own members,” led to the rebirth of “a united nation” able to “extend its power, its strength and its freedom to mankind.”

This was very much the dominant narrative of American history in the first half of the last century. As Jackson Lears notes in Rebirth of a Nation, by “1920, the reborn nation was a racially purified polity where segregation was official public policy and ‘American’ meant ‘Caucasian.’” All of the 42 human figures representing American citizenship and history in Borglum’s sculpture are clearly and recognizably white. This can hardly be an oversight. Indeed, Borglum was committed to a white supremacist idea of citizenship.

Although he would gain enduring fame as the designer of the vast monument to American exceptionalism at Mount Rushmore, Borglum established his reputation as America’s preeminent creator of monumental patriotic sculptures at Stone Mountain, Georgia, the site of the 1915 revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The United Daughters of the Confederacy had already hired Borglum to design and build a “monument to the confederate cause, which will be second to none in the world.”

This was not merely a case of an artist accepting whatever patronage came his way; Borglum was an enthusiastic white supremacist and, at least until 1923, a leading member of the Invisible Empire. Imperial Wizard William Simmons read a message from the sculptor to the crowd at the dedication of the Klankrest – his home and headquarters – in 1921. Simmons and Georgia Governor Thomas Hardwick used the opportunity to reaffirm their shared commitment to the notion that “white supremacy in the United States is a fundamental principle.” The Atlanta Constitution reported that Hardwick went on to praise the Klan, “an organization that stands for white supremacy, Anglo-Saxonism and Americanism.”

Away at work on the monument to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis at Stone Mountain, Borglum sent his regrets that he was unable to attend such an important and august assembly.

Although he would eventually part ways with the Daughters of the Confederacy – leaving his monument to be completed by other hands – Borglum was one of the Klan’s most prominent public figures. Hiram Evans, Simmons’ successor as the national leader of the Invisible Empire, named the sculptor to a 15-member “Kloncilium,” a council of the Ku Klux Klan leadership, that met in the summer of 1923 to sort out the legalities of a power struggle.

There is a curious lack of specificity in the national military narrative that Borglum installed on that granite – hewn, it turns out, from Stone Mountain – in the heart of Newark. There can be no doubt that the commanding figure in a tricorne hat in the front rank is a hero of the Revolutionary War. But the allegiance of his hatless comrade, uniformed in a Civil War frock coat and often described as a Union officer, is not so clear. His belt buckle bears no “USA,” and the rank insignia that might indicate whether he is meant to be a man of the North or the South, are obscured by his towering height. The mustachioed soldier leading an artillery train in the zone of “action and struggle” might as well be wearing the uniform of the Army of Northern Virginia as the Army of the Potomac.

That ambiguity is, undoubtedly, the whole point. This memorial to the Wars of America embodies a notion of muscular, racial nationalism in which there is no North and South, no strife, only unity in white citizenship.

Only steps away, there is another, much smaller memorial marking a singular sacrifice in a later war. It is a stone plaque, relocated from Harrison Park, two miles away, in 2005. It commemorates Archie Callahan, a sailor who died aboard the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941; the first African American to lose his life in the Second World War.

The Memorial Project is a photographic history of American memorial practice since 1865. Using film photography to document monuments, artifacts, and spaces of collective and official public memory, the project aims to interrogate “how America remembers.” All photos © Matthew Friedman.

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Source: Memorial Project