Sunday, February 12, 2012

The grandest memorial of them all

The Civil War, and we're now in the second year of its sesquicentennial, remains the most thoroughly memorialized event in Iowa --- tons of granite, bronze, marble and in some cases cast iron distributed across every county, most often in courthouse squares.

But the granddaddy of them all is that wonderful confection known as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, just south of the Capitol in Des Moines. Didn't have time to pay a personal visit last Tuesday, when we were at the Capitol for Main Street Iowa announcements, just gave it a nod.

The Capitol complex is an interesting place, if you look around --- a fair sampling of the good, the bad and the ugly in public architecture. The Capitol's spectacular; the old Historical Building (now Ola Babcock), fine; and I like (although some don't) the Wallace building with its walls of shimmering gold glass (which have caused so many problems the suggestion is made now and then that it would be cheaper to knock it down). The newest, the Judicial Building, is not bad nor actually is the lumpish Lucas Building; at least it manages not to be too offensive. The dregs are the butt-ugly Hoover and Grimes buildings, about the worst architects of the latter half of the 20th century could manage.

But Soldiers and Sailors, I think at least, is second only to the Capitol in drop-dead in-your-face glory.

It didn't come easy. Designed by Mount Pleasant's Harriet A. Ketcham, the monument was approved in 1888, the cornerstone placed in 1894 and the whole thing was completed two years later. Before, during and after, however, there were grand battles about funding, design and location. By the time it was completed, nearly everyone's nose was out of joint --- and formal dedication didn't take place until 1945.

Victory tops the 135-foot memorial and four of Iowa's Civil War generals (and their horses) --- Marcellus M. Crocker, Grenville M. Dodge, Samuel R. Curtis and John M. Corse --- lead charges in four directions atop the base. Four figures representing four branches of service --- Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery and Navy --- surround the lower base. The sailor here is Ensign William H.C. Michael. The others are Infantryman Shelby Norman, 18, the first Iowan killed in battle; artilleryman Capt. Henry H. Griffiths; and cavalryman Lt. James Horton, killed while leading a saber charge at the Battle of Lovejoy Station.

The bare-breasted maiden in front of the north face of the monument has generated the most scandalized fussing --- and the most snickers --- over the years. She represents a youthful Iowa offering sustenance to her people in a rather graphic way.

Anyhow, it's a glorious piece of work. Take a closer look the next time you're in the neighborhood. And if you've got a little spare time on a Sunday afternoon, you can take a look at nearly every Civil War memorial on the state by going to this site, maintained by Iowa's Sons of Union Veterans.

And while you're about it, remember that 80,000 Iowans served in the Civil War, the largest number per capita of any state in the Union. Of those, perhaps 800 were Lucas Countyans. And among the Lucas Countyans, more than 150 died.


Ed said...

I love that monument and the area where it is located. We often go up there on sunny summer afternoons and while the hours away in the shade reading books and gazing at the monuments.

Flying Eagle said...

My husband and I visited the Iowa State Capitol this past summer. I want to use the photos we took there on my blog, but I just could not find information on this monument, until I came across your article.

Thank you so much for the detailed information. It is exactly what I've been looking for. God bless!

Flying Eagle from Hong Kong