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.