How America Remembers: An Introduction

How America Remembers: An Introduction

He came down the stairs on the right: a man in his late-60s, or early 70s, walking slowly, with a slight stoop. He passed along the long stone slab bearing the names of the fallen from right to left, from West to East, from 1973 back in time, pausing briefly two or...

Katyn Massacre Memorial, Exchange Place, Jersey City, NJ

Over a period of several weeks in the spring of 1940, agents of the NKVD and soldiers of the Soviet Red Army systematically murdered almost 22,000 Polish army officers, political and cultural leaders on orders from Josef Stalin and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. Their bodies were buried in mass graves in a forest near Katyn, about 15 miles from the Russian city of Smolensk.

Soviet forces had invaded Poland the previous September, pushing toward the west as the Nazi blitzkrieg drove east. It was all part of a secret plan hatched that summer, when the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov negotiated an alliance with his Nazi counterpart Joachin von Ribbentrop. Hitler and Stalin agreed to jointly invade Poland and divide the spoils between them, with Germany taking the west, and the USSR the east. Neither side expected the agreement to last, but both were eager to take what they could get while the getting was good.

The German invasion touched off the Second World War. Britain and France, outraged by Nazi aggression and diplomatically obliged to defend Poland, issued an ultimatum demanding a German withdrawal. Of the Soviet invasion, they said nothing. When the ultimatum’s deadline passed, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that a state of war existed between his country and the German aggressor. No such state of war existed with the Soviet Union. The western Allies believed they could make short work of Germany, but they were loath to poke the Russian Bear. They said nothing.

Stalin got away with it.

A little less than two years later the USSR was Britain’s ally and, shortly thereafter, America’s as well. Neither Winston Churchill nor Franklin Roosevelt wanted to bring up Stalin’s dirty secret, although they knew full well what had happened in the Katyn Forest. Even five months after the German surrender in 1945, the official story was that the Katyn Massacre was just another Nazi atrocity. The New York Times reported in October of that year that the perpetrators would soon face judgment before the International War Crimes Tribunal. “This is but one of he many war crimes for which the majority of the German war leaders awaiting trial at Nuremburg will have to answer,” the Times’ correspondent wrote. The Tribunal quietly dropped the case.

The Katyn Massacre is a dark, bloody wound in the Polish collective memory, felt as keenly – if not more – in the Polish diaspora as in Poland itself. It is a memory of the deepest trauma; of unimaginable violence, betrayal, and the theft of their nation. After the war, American and British officials slowly, grudgingly acknowledged that this atrocity had been committed by our erstwhile allies, and not by our detested enemy. Polish Americans, in particular, demanded that it be recognized and commemorated. But a belated commemoration of the Katyn Massacre would inevitably call attention to the western allies’ complicity in its cover up. So there would be no monuments; no memorials.

It was only with Glasnost and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union that the unspeakable truth could be spoken and the memory commemorated. In April 1990, fifty years after the massacre, the Soviet government came clean, and promised to turn over the NKVD and Red Army documents to public scrutiny.

That was cold comfort to millions of Polish Americans whose national trauma had remained largely unacknowledged for half a century. When Polish community leaders announced a project to erect a memorial monument on the banks of the Hudson River, the response from Polish Americans was overwhelming. Many made contributions to fund the memorial, many others eagerly anticipated the dedication ceremony.

Northern New Jersey is home to the largest Polish American communities in the United States. Polish immigrants set down deep roots in the cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Linden, and Jersey City, where they worked alongside African Americans and immigrants from Ireland and Italy on the docks, in the warehouses, and in rail yards that served the thriving metropolitan economy of New York City in the 19th and 20th centuries.

These were the “huddled masses” welcomed by Emma Lazarus’s verse engraved on the Statue of Liberty just off Caven Point – but they were also the people the New York Times editorial board had dismissed in 1884 as “the human refuse of Europe,” and Senator Ellison Durant Smith described four decades later as “dumb, driven cattle,” unsuited to American citizenship.

The dedication of sculptor Andrzej Pitynski’s Katyn memorial on city-owned property at Jersey City’s Exchange Place on 19 May 1991 was thus more than an expression of ethnic cultural memory; it was a powerful statement by Polish Americans of their citizenship. This monument, the Irish Famine memorial three miles away in Lincoln Park, the Philippine war memorial a few blocks away on Manila Avenue weave the histories of once-excluded communities into the broad tapestry of American public memory. They stand in the way, demand to be seen, and enjoin passersby to add these memories to their own.

Located in the heart of Jersey City’s old Polish neighborhood, Pitynski’s 34-foot-tall bronze statue is a stylized depiction of a Polish soldier, his arms bound, stabbed through the back by a rifle bayonet. The Plinth bears the inscription “Katyn, 1940.” After a half-century of lies and coverups, it proclaims, the agonizing memory will not be forgotten. It will not be ignored.

Yet, only 27 years after the monument was unveiled, it seems that there are many in Jersey City who would, in fact, prefer to ignore it. In the intervening decades, the working-class residents who toiled in the warehouses and docks around Exchange Place have been gradually pushed out of downtown Jersey City by creeping gentrification. Where there once were rail yards, warehouses, and humble homes, there are now luxury condominiums, trendy restaurants and cafes catering to the affluent professionals who displaced the original parishioners of Our Lady of Czestochowa church a few blocks away on Sussex Street. The Polish Army Veterans’ Association is vacant; White Eagle Hall has become a hip alternative music venue.

For the property developers who have come to wield so much power in Jersey City, the Katyn memorial is an obstacle in the heart of the most profitable real estate on the west side of the Hudson River; for their target market, it’s an eyesore. “How can I explain such a gruesome sculpture to my children?” ask parents pushing strollers along the redeveloped Hudson Riverwalk. “Why should I have to look at this?”

In April of this year, Mayor Steven Fulop announced that the memorial would be moved to accommodate a waterfront redevelopment project. At first the details were vague – Was this a temporary measure? Was it to be moved to storage, or to another location entirely? Eventually the city’s plans became clear: The “gruesome” statue would be moved into storage to make way for a splash park for children.

Mayor Fulop and the developers probably did not expect the firestorm that the announcement touched off. It was like they were blithely consigning the memory of the Katyn Massacre to public amnesia once again, and the announcement became an international controversy, inviting comment from the Polish government, and mobilizing protesters.

The future of the Katyn memorial remains unclear. Jersey City thought it had struck a deal to relocate the monument to cramped location nearby, but the proposal has satisfied no one.

And why would it? At issue here is not the subjective aesthetics of Pitynski’s striking, dramatic sculpture, or even the tender emotions of neighborhood children. It is a contest over memory – over what should be remembered, and how it should be remembered. And for the Polish Americans who fought so hard for so long to bring the long-suppressed memory to light, the fear that the 22,000 murdered Poles buried in the Katyn Forest might be officially forgotten once again is almost more than they can bear.


Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, IL

Although muffled by the shroud that draped his head and body, the voice of August Spies rang out in cramped prison yard where he, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel stood on the scaffold on 11 November 1887. A fifth man, Louis Lingg, had cheated the hangman by taking his own life the day before. “The day will come,” Spies shouted, “when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” The hangman released the trap; the silence was deafening.

The executions marked both an end and a beginning in American labor history. The four men had been arrested in connection with the death of eight Chicago police officers when a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square descended into chaos the previous May 4th. Spies and other labor leaders had called the workers of Chicago out for a mass show of defiance to protest the murders of striking workers by police and company security guards at the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory the day earlier.

This was no ordinary walkout; the Knights of Labor, America’s first national labor union, and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had called industrial workers across the country out on strike on May Day to demand an eight-hour day. Hundreds of thousands of workers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, laid down their tools, left the factories, and joined the picket lines.

At a time when the average American worker labored 60 hours every week for pennies a day, this was a radical demand. The American phase of the industrial revolution, and the fortunes of McCormick, Carnegie, Pullman, and Rockefeller, were built on the principle of extracting as much from workers as possible at the lowest possible cost. It seemed presumptuous for workers to demand to be treated like human beings. For them to walk out on strike seemed like revolution.

Revolution had certainly been on Spies’ mind – as an ultimate goal, if not as an immediate possibility – when he addressed the workers outside McCormick’s factory on 3 May. Facing down the guns of the police and the bosses’ hired men, he called for calm and restraint. But he was an anarchist, a leading voice among the most revolutionary activists in organized labor. He and his comrades believed that the Union, and massed strikes were the first steps toward a world in which the rich would no longer get fat off the sweat of toiling workers. This was the message of his speeches to working people throughout the Midwest, it was the message of his articles in the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung newspaper.

The prosecutors hanged him with those words.

When a bomb went off in Haymarket Square on 4 May, leaving eight officers dead, the Chicago police set about arresting the usual suspects. No one had actually seen the bomber; his identity remains a mystery today. But Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Lingg, and Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden – whose sentences would be commuted to life in prison – were known agitators, anarchists and socialists. Worse still, six of the men were immigrants, the so-called “refuse of Europe;” four were Jews. The prosecution did not need much evidence to get a conviction; the defendants’ beliefs and words, spoken in heavy accents, and their hirsute, foreign faces were enough to convince the judge and jury that they were guilty of something, even if it was not the crime for which they were convicted.

The lives of Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Engel ended on 11 November 1887; the Knights of Labor collapsed soon after. But their deaths also marked the beginning of a new labor militancy that, through organizing and strikes, hard work, defeats and victories, would make the 8-hour day, minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and the right to strike parts of workers’ lives throughout the United States. In 1904, the international socialist movement adopted May Day as the International Day of the Worker to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs and the global mobilization that began in Chicago in May 1886.

On 25 June 1893, a huge assembly of labor activists, workers, and their families marched from Chicago to the Waldheim (now the Forest Home) Cemetery in Forest Park, IL. It was a summer Sunday and workers and their families could take the time to march, pause, and reflect on the value and the high price of workers’ rights. They came to dedicate a memorial to the Haymarket Martyrs, funded by popular subscription, and designed by the sculptor Albert Weinert.

Weinert’s monument, alongside the graves of labor and revolutionary leaders like Emma Goldman and Benjamin Reitman in the cemetery’s “Radical Row,” depicts a defiant young woman who represents the revolutionary future. She lays a hero’s laurels on the head of martyred worker. The imagery recalls the work of the Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier and, although it might seem somewhat mawkish to 21st century eyes, in 1893 it signified hope and commitment.

The year 1887 is engraved on the front of the monument, and the names of the five martyrs appear on the back. Spies’ last words from the scaffold, engraved at the base of the plinth, proclaim a warning to capital and promise to workers.

The memorial is now owned and maintained by the Illinois Labor History Society, which conducts monthly tours of the cemetery, Radical Row, and the Martyr’s Monument. It has become a kind of secular pilgrimage site for a new generation of labor activists and political radicals, and provides a fitting backdrop for an annual May Day festival organized by the Forest Park Historical Society. In 1997, the National Parks Service designated the memorial as a national historical landmark.

Yet there is a great irony in that, and not only that the state has recognized the significance of a memorial to radical activists who fought the power of the state. While communities routinely allocate public resources to mark wars with vast stone monuments, and choose which traumatic memories deserve recognition, none the monuments to the martyrs of the workers’ struggle – in Forest Park, at Ludlow, Co., for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York – receive public support. They were built, and are maintained, by working men and women themselves. The National Park Service’s plaque is little more than grudging recognition of a movement that the state would rather silence.

Confederate Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC

In the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, in April 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote that “it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” It was the bloodiest battle in American history to that point, although it would soon be eclipsed by the carnage of Chickamauga, Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg. More than 1,700 Union soldiers lay dead, and an equal number of rebels. Fully one quarter of the men who fought on those days were maimed, missing, or dead.

The bodies were piled into mass graves and, although the Union dead were later re-interred in a nearby cemetery with full military honors, the remains of the rebels remained in the shallow battlefield burial trenches. The fates of their commanding officers were quite different. General Albert Sidney Johnson, who fell on the first day of the battle, now lies in an elaborate tomb in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin Texas. General P.G.T. Beauregard was buried in his home state of Louisiana when he died, an old man, in 1893. And General Marcus J. Wright, whose men lie unmarked in the Tennessee soil, passed away quietly at the age of 91 in 1922. His body lies in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

It is surprising enough to find the remains of a traitor to his country buried alongside America’s honored dead. It is, however, astonishing to find it at the foot of a memorial to the “heroes” of the Confederate States of America on what is often called “the nation’s most hallowed ground.”

Dedicated on a bright June day in 1914, the Confederate Memorial is a enormous, baroque sculpture depicting scenes of southern heroism, pride, and honor designed by Moses Ezekiel, himself a confederate veteran. He is buried near the base of the monument, alongside Wright, and two other rebel officers, Harry C. Marmaduke and John M. Hickey.

In many ways, the memorial marks not so much the memory of the Civil War, but the historical moment when sectional reconciliation was sealed in an act of revisionist amnesia. It was, in fact, the most concrete expression of an explicit national policy that elided southern racism and treason in shared white citizenship and brotherhood. President William McKinley made this clear in 1898, only three years before officially committing federal resources to the maintenance of Confederate monuments: “Every soldier’s grave made during the unfortunate Civil War is a tribute to American valor. And while, when those graves were made, we differed widely about the future of the Government, those differences were long ago settled by the arbitrament of arms — and the time has now come in the evolution of sentiment and feeling under the providences of God when, in the spirit of fraternity, we should share with you in the care of the graves of the Confederate soldiers.”

Indeed, the memorial was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the principal agent of white supremacist historical revisionism after the Civil War. These were the ladies who funded Gutzon Borglum’s vast sculpture at Stone Mountain, GA, and dozens of monuments and memorials across the south. They had reached the pinnacle of their political and cultural influence, writes David W. Blight, by the time the memorial at Arlington was unveiled “through their funding of monuments, efforts to control Southern textbooks, lobbying of congressmen, and their ubiquitous essay contests whereby Southern youth could exhibit the ‘truth’ of the Lost Cause.”

After Charlottesville, after Dylan Roof, the sheer scale of Confederate public veneration is no longer even an open secret, it is simply an unsettling fact of the landscape of American memory. The Confederate memorial at Arlington is only one of more than 700 memorials across the country. It is almost mundane – except for the fact that is located on public land managed and maintained by the government the Confederate States of America sought to destroy, land which had been set aside to honor the memory of the men they killed.

It anchors the shameful history of official white supremacy in the United States in the very geography of “America’s most hallowed ground.” The memorial stands proudly in Jackson Circle, just inside the Selfridge Gate at Farragut Drive, one of the main entry points for visitors coming from the West parking lots. It is the first, and most imposing, monument that most of them will see before continuing to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame. And virtually none of these visitors will ever see the only memorial to the United States Colored Troops who died in the Civil War. This is a tiny plaque, tucked into a small grove a mile away in Section 27, more than a mile away, at the far northern edge of the cemetery. It was installed in 1992.


Irish Famine Memorial, Lincoln Park, Jersey City, NJ

The 18-foot tall Celtic cross in Jersey City’s Lincoln Park marks both a memory of profound trauma and the persistence of the community that remembers it. Erected in 2011 in a public park by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, the memorial’s design reaches far back into Irish history to commemorate an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) of 1845-1852, the cataclysmic famine that killed a million and sent millions more from their homeland.

The Irish community has deep roots in Jersey City that reach back to that cataclysm. Father Mark O’Connell opened the dedication ceremony with a blessing, following a mass at nearby St. Aloysius Church, the seat of one of Hudson County’s original Irish Catholic parishes. Christine Kinealy, the author of The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion, read Jane Elgee’s poem “The Famine Year,” written in 1847. It was a moment of deep reflection on a somber memory.

Although the memory of the Famine is old, its commemoration is of much more recent origin. In Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument, Emily Mark-Fitzgerald notes that the vast majority of monuments to its memory were erected in the wake of “the remarkable outpouring of public commemoration and sentiment (described in the Irish media as ‘Famine fever’) that swept across Ireland and the nations of its diaspora during the Famine’s 150th anniversary” in 1995. Before that, she writes, it was a trauma shrouded in silence – remembered, but unspoken.

Indeed, the tardy commemoration of the great tragedy of Irish history and the founding trauma of the Irish diaspora, reflects the complex politics of historical memory. Irish nationalism had little time to remember the dead and departed. Nationalist narratives celebrated the heroic martyrs of 1916, the Volunteers of 1919-1921, remembered the victims of the Black and Tans, and largely forgot the emigrants who they believed abandoned Ireland for the green fields of America.

The silence was as deafening across the Atlantic, where Irish Americans worked energetically to find a place for themselves in a racist social order suspicious of outsiders and, by the early-20th century, hostile to immigrants. They downplayed their refugee roots and emphasized their embrace of the American Dream. Irish Americans were, after all, Americans whose popular culture evoked “the old sod” in sentimental memory. Ireland was the land of Brigadoon and The Quiet Man. Occasionally, there would be a note of tragedy, as in John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer; but there was rarely, if ever, even a mention of the Great Hunger.

That remained a distant memory for, throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, Ireland remained very far away. The Atlantic was too wide an ocean to cross easily, save for visits from entertainers like John McCormack, who often toured America singing “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls” in his honeyed tenor, and lusty-voiced lads like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers.

President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 was unprecedented for an American president, and unusual for an Irish American. It was very much a product of the burgeoning Jet Age that would soon bring Ireland into more intimate and continuous contact with its diaspora. The three-day tour was hailed as a homecoming, as the president met with distant relatives in the town of New Ross, Co. Wexford, from which his great-grandparents had sailed for America in 1849. Much was made, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the return; no mention was made of the cause of Patrick and Bridget Kennedy’s emigration.

That began to change by the next decade. The resumption of the Troubles in Northern Ireland followed in the wake of decades of decolonization, and nationalist firebrands found inspiration and justification in anticolonial struggles around the world. The memory of the Famine, and especially of the shameful British colonial policies that escalated the scale of the catastrophe, now had political value.

And Irish Americans began to uncover its memory as the struggles of the 1960s released long-repressed demands for minority representation and the recognition of the place of subaltern peoples in an increasingly variegated American community. Writing in 1976 in the New York Times, William V. Shannon observed that “the Irish are fading out as a discernible group in American life” at just the moment when ethnic and cultural identities were gaining cultural capital. In this new cultural context, and in the shadow of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Irish consciousness was experiencing a renaissance in America. But, he noted “it is the tragedies in Ireland’s past, not those of the present, that shape the American Irish community’s sense of identity.” And the greatest tragedy, the one that established the Irish in America, was the Famine.

Thus, to commemorate the Famine – indeed to acknowledge it at all – was to insist on the particularity of the Irish to American history. Famine memorials plant a Celtic cross in the space of American public memory and proclaim the significance of the Irish, both as a discrete group and as members of the broader community, in America.

At its worst, this impulse has fed an ugly kind of Irish American exceptionalism. It promotes the specious myth that “the Irish were slaves, too” and argues that, since the Irish were able to overcome their poverty in America, any groups – African Americans, immigrants – still subject to structural oppression are merely whiners, and undeserving of their compassion.

On the other hand, the memory of the Famine has become, for descendants of its survivors on both sides of the Atlantic, the touchstone of a powerful humanistic universalism. In his poem “Digging,” Seamus Heaney found his identity and mission in the memory of an Gorta Mór:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

He dug deep and found a commitment to humanity. In his poem, “From the Republic of Conscience,” written to mark International Human Rights Day in 1985, Heaney wrote of emigration, immigration, and the crossing of borders as the universal human condition. Through it everyone, collectively and individually, assumes the obligations of citizenship in the “Republic of Conscience:”

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

Wars of America Memorial, Military Park, Newark, NJ

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.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York, NY

The World Trade Center’s twin towers fell on 11 September 2001. Almost immediately, Americans began to seek closure, even if the term hadn’t yet fully worked its way into their daily vocabulary. Writing in the New York Times ten weeks later, Shaila Dewan recalled that the idea of “closure” might first have appeared in the public imagination in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when Timothy McVeigh killed a 168 people… Or maybe it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission…

It was, nevertheless, still a new concept in 2001, “a shorthand for which the longhand is unclear,” Dewan wrote. It seemed to be “a flawed concept whose overuse could do more harm than good” by promising the possibility of “moving on” from the trauma without grappling with how it changed everything.

New Yorkers erected spontaneous memorials around what became known as “Ground Zero.” Passerby laced flags, t-shirts, baseball caps, notes, and memorabilia into the fence at Saint Paul’s Chapel, two blocks away at Broadway and Vesey. Close by, at Fulton Street, the owner of Chelsea Jeans preserved a small corner of his shop behind glass, just as it was when the force of the towers’ collapse blew in the front window.

In 2003, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation held a design competition for a permanent memorial to help New Yorkers – and all Americans – find closure. It was a controversial plan that meant setting aside more than eight acres of the most expensive commercial real estate it the world, land that could be used for housing, schools, or business.

Designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial was meant to address some of those concerns by providing an anchor for the economic regeneration of Lower Manhattan. There was always a commercial dimension to the project, and it has been largely successful in attracting as many as four million visitors per year to a part of the city that had been devastated by the attack. Indeed, the 9/11 Memorial rivals Times Square and the Empire State building as one of New York’s top draws for out-of-town tourists, many of whom happily pay the $24 admission price to visit the museum.

Yet, for all of the cynical calculation – this is, after all, New York – the memorial is also strangely moving. It is an enormous public space suggesting the memorial parks of the 1940s and 1950s, focused on two vast pools of water marking the bases of each fallen tower. The names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, are engraved in the bronze panels surrounding the pools.

They are grouped according to where they were that day, and how they were related to the tragedy at the time of their deaths. So, the North Pool commemorates the passengers and crew of American Airlines Flight 11 and the employees and visitors in the North Tower. The South Pool commemorates the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 175, the employees and visitors in the South Tower, people in the streets and buildings nearby, the first responders who died during rescue operations.

The arrangement of the names creates an unexpected social geography. Names like Kumar, Afuako, Haberman, and Williams – passengers, maintenance staff, employees of the Port Authority – are scattered evenly around both pools. But at the south pool, in the cluster of first responders, one finds Geraghty, Freund, O’Keefe, Marino, McCann: reminding visitors of New York’s historic contours of ethnicity, neighborhood, tradition, and hierarchy.

The names reference both the tragedy itself and our cultural vocabulary for representing and commemorating tragedy. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is the obvious precedent and, just like at the wall in Constitution Gardens, visitors leave offerings. But things are different here; what seems spontaneous and chaotic in Washington feels choreographed and planned in New York. Mourners at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial mark their memories with personal mementos, keepsakes, medals and photographs; around the World Trade Center pools, they are mostly cut flowers and flags.

And while the polished surface of Maya Lin’s wall invites visitors to see their own reflections among the names of the fallen, and contemplate the meanings of the Vietnam War, at Ground Zero they stare into dark, yawning chasms. Waterfalls around the four sides of each pool, representing, some say, tears of mourning, pour endlessly into wounds too deep ever to be filled. It turns out that there is no closure here after all, only a deep, black emptiness.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, Chicago, IL


A woman from a nearby office enjoys a cup of coffee, a student is immersed in reading, a man in his late-60s pauses for a few moments to remember a fallen comrade. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza on Chicago’s Riverwalk is a unique commemorative space. Unlike many public memorials, which enjoin passers to stop, look up and remember, the memorial plaza invites them to remember within the space.

The plaza focuses on a memorial fountain with a slab of black granite bearing the names of almost 3,000 Illinois servicemen who died in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. The fountain is flanked by a terraced lawn where Chicagoans, descending the stairs from State Street, or strolling along the Riverwalk, can stop, and rest, and choose for themselves how, and whether to remember. It is a powerful, contemplative space, and it is unique among American memorials. It echoes Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, while simultaneously evoking the “memorials for use” – parks, schools, bridges – built in the 1940s and 1950s to mark the memory of the Second World War.

Yet this was accidental, or at least it was not by design. The memorial fountain was originally located in what the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin called “a glorified traffic island on Wacker Drive,” a location at the confluence of Wabash and Wacker with “all the serenity of a drag strip [that] unintentionally symbolized the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home.”

Indeed, Chicago’s Vietnam memorial was something of an afterthought; an orphan city project, undertaken with little public input, evidently in response to the growing profile of Lin’s monument as it was being built in Washington. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund slected Lin’s design – a wall of polished black marble engraved with the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam – in May 1981, and construction began the following November. Controversy over the design erupted in the summer of 1982, and shortly afterward the city of Chicago and the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology opened a design competition for the city’s own memorial.

It’s impossible to say how profoundly the designer was influenced by Lin or the controversy over the Wall; there appears to have been very little public comment. But the monument Mayor Jane Byrne dedicated before a crowd of about 200 veterans and their families on a chilly Veterans Day four months later – the same day the of the dedication of Washington memorial – bears a striking resemblance. It is clearly in conversation with Lin’s design, and meant to redress what some critics believed to be its shortcomings.

The Tribune reported that the city’s veterans got “an overdue ‘thank you’” on that day, but Chicago’s memorial fountain, stranded on a strip of land surrounded by city traffic, never seemed entirely adequate. As Kamin noted, a traffic island is hardly an ideal place for contemplation. Only in 2005, in the wake of a new war, and in the context of a revolution of memorial practice, did the fountain and the names move to their new home as part of a renovation of Chicago’s downtown riverfront.

The memorial plaza is tucked into a small corner of the Riverwalk, now supplemented with a sculpture of the Vietnam Service Medal by Gary Tillery – a Vietnam veteran – set into the wall behind the names. The space feels more capacious than it is. Engraved in the stone wall above the names, the phrase “Chicago Remembers” is both descriptive and prescriptive.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC

There are 58,318 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, marking the deaths of a generation of young men, and eight women, in the United States’ military intervention in Southeast Asia between 1956 and 1975. The names are engraved in highly polished black marble set into the earth in Constitution Gardens at the western end of the National Mall.

The memorial reveals itself gradually to visitors as they pass long the path skirting the lake: a memory first glimpsed, and then only fully apprehended as they confront it directly. At certain times of the morning, in the spring and summer, the first hint of the wall is a flash of sunlight reflecting off of its gleaming surface.

This is intentional; Maya Lin, the Yale architecture student who designed the memorial in 1981, meant it to be a site of reflection. Inspired by the memorials for the Great War – those public places of private grief – Lin conceived her design as “an interface, between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond. I chose black granite in order to make the surface reflective and peaceful.”

The reflective surface is even more than that, notes the cultural critic Marita Sturken; it is also an interactive screen that interpellates visitors into the narrative of names. The black reflective surface echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, she wrote in 1991, “that allows viewers to participate in the memorial, seeing their own images in the names, [and] they are thus implicated in the listing of the dead.”

The names, listed without rank, in the order of the deaths, meticulously maintained, updated, added and removed as conditions require, make this a memorial of collective individuality. The memorials of the Civil War honored the “silent sentinel in the abstract,” those of the Great War were cenotaphs – empty tombs – to the unknown soldiers of a generation. Each name on the Vietnam Veterans memorial is a nexus of trajectories: 58,318 sons, daughters, lovers, parents – even the teenager next door who played the Rolling Stones too loudly. The memorial draws its power from an inversion of the Great War’s memorial practice: it transforms collective, public grief into innumerable moments of personal mourning.

No bodies are buried in soil of Constitution Gardens, but it is there that mourners commune with the dead, by leaving ritual offerings – dog tags, medals, letters, photos of the dead. In Carried to the Wall, Kristin Ann Hass notes that, while this practice has roots in private funerary traditions, “there is no history of speaking with things in public spaces.” This was something new; an unplanned, unexpected innovation of the memorial itself, and its power to personalize a collective tragedy. And the National Parks Service, the wall’s custodians, encourage visitors also to take something away in the form of charcoal rubbings. The transaction of memory is thus deeply personal, and focused on the specificity of the living’s encounters with the names of the dead.

It can be difficult to grasp the controversy that raged right up to the memorial’s dedication on Veterans Day 1982. Some critics felt cheated of a heroic monument. Writing in The Washington Post one year before the dedication, Vietnam veteran Tom Carhart denounced Lin’s design as “a black gash… of dishonor and shame.” He proposed, instead, that the wall of names be built to stand above, and not within, the ground, of white marble to put it “in beautiful harmony, rather than stark contrast, with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.” Above all, he demanded that it be capped with the flag.

Few of the visitors who quietly, and solemnly file past the wall, stopping for a few moments to remember a loved one, or to contemplate the name of a stranger, feel cheated. Preserving the names of the fallen, as the markers of their memory, seems so right, so proper, that the memorial has become the template for memorials elsewhere in the United States and the world. The power of Lin’s design is the power of names – engraved in stone, sewn into a quilt, spoken to power – to ensure that they will not be forgotten.

Liberation Monument, Liberty State Park, NJ

Located at the far southern end of Liberty State Park in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, the Liberation Monument inspires a wide range of responses. Joggers stretching at the base of its massive plinth often seem oblivious to the dramatic sculpture towering above; picnickers at the tables in the recreation area just to the west sometimes gaze at it in a blend of curiosity and puzzlement.

More often, however, passersby – alone, with a dog on leash, or with a child in a stroller – stop, look up, and contemplate for a moment the two-ton monument’s meaning.

This is a Holocaust memorial, one of only two in New Jersey. Commissioned by the state in 1983, and dedicated two years later, the monument depicts an American soldier carrying a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in a secular pietà. It was designed, and executed in bronze by Nathan Rapoport, a Jewish sculptor born in Warsaw in 1911 who escaped to the Soviet Union – and then to the United States – just ahead of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1939.

There is a visceral power to Rapoport’s sculpture reminiscent of Auguste Rodin and Kathe Kollwitz. The figures’ bodies are slightly distorted, particularly in the hands and feet, and their faces are masks of stylized emotion – evoking, perhaps, the universality of the subject. Yet, while most other Holocaust memorials are abstractions to articulate the enormity of the tragedy and the unspeakable horror of the death camps, like the Holocaust Memorial Park in New York, or Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Liberation Monument is uniquely literal.

In one sense, that is a source of its power: it literally embodies the tragedy in these figures. Yet, in another sense, it evacuates the memory of the tragedy in an appeal to nationalism and national pride. For the Liberation Monument is not really – in fact at all – a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, but to “America’s role of preserving freedom and rescuing the oppressed.” In an odd, and somewhat unsettling way, it enjoins passersby not so much to remember the dead, but the heroism of the American liberators, and to reinforce a nationalist self-image.

It is, perhaps, not objectionable to put a positive spin on a great tragedy. Speaking at the dedication ceremony on 30 May 1985, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean said the monument invited “a unique blend of serious contemplation and yet enduring hope.” Yet, across the river from where Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied admission to the United States in 1940, one has to wonder if this enduring hope merely mystifies the full enormity of a tragic memory.

Civil War Memorial, Lincoln Park, Jersey City, NJ

Striding decisively, with determination in his jaw and a Springfield rifle in his hand, the bronze soldier in Jersey City’s Lincoln Park commemorates “the soldiers of Jersey City who fought in the War of the Rebellion.” It was funded primarily through the largesse of Edward J. Donnelly, a sergeant in the 5th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, who saw action in the Siege of Petersburg before returning home to Jersey City in 1864.

In many respects, the Jersey City memorial is much like the thousands of “Silent Sentinels” erected in parks and town squares throughout the United States in the decades following the Civil War. Sarah Beetham and Catherine Clinton write of a “mass commemorative project” that was central to the postwar project of reunion, and which stimulated a mass-produced monument industry to meet “the burgeoning demand for commemorative statuary following the war by producing stock figures, sold through catalogs.”

That resemblance is superficial. The mass-produced soldiers, identical save for belt buckles engraved with “USA” or “CSA,” as local requirements demanded, arose in the flush of nationalism and white reconciliation that Jackson Lears slyly calls the “Rebirth of a Nation.” The bronze soldier of Lincoln Park is from a different time when, as the living memory of the war died, public memory was cast in the bronze and stone of myth. Americans now remembered the men in blue and grey as equally courageous, equally honorable, and motivated by the same patriotism.

This sculpture, of a brave and determined young man out of the pages of Stephen Crane, is the work of Joseph P. Pollia, a Sicilian immigrant of formidable gifts who must count among the masters of American public memorial art of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time when, as Jennifer Wingate writes in Sculpting Doughboys, in the second great surge of American memorial building, artists like Pollia competed bitterly with the manufacturers of the cheaper, mass-produced “Silent Sentinels” for commissions to commemorate the war to end wars.

Pollia was a busy man, sculpting Great War memorials for Milford, CT, New York City, and Tarrytown, NY, Lynn, MA, and Storm Lake, Iowa. And in that great tide of patriotic fervor, he was also called upon to design monuments to the national heroes of that earlier war; whether they were the common soldier in Lincoln Park, or Philip Sheridan, the great Union general whose equestrian statue stands in Sheridan Square in New York City.

Yet Pollia’s most famous work, commissioned in the same patriotic times, a few years after the bronze soldier set foot in Lincoln Park, is a huge equestrian statue that still stands at the Manassas National Battlefield celebrating the memory of Stonewall Jackson. It says much about the gap between history and public memory that an artist could, in the name of patriotism, design monuments to commemorate sacrifice of men like Sgt. Donnelly’s comrades in defense of their country, and to celebrate their enemy.