Themes & Symbolism
This page explores some of the themes and symbols and “features” you will find on the monuments at Gettysburg. It isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but I’ve tried to include a variety of themes and symbols.
It is also worth noting here once again that is difficult to tell from just looking at a monument how much fighting the regiment engaged in at Gettysburg. Some regiments boast impressive monuments and suffered almost no casualties. Other regiments boast very simple monuments and were heavily engaged. As an example of this phenomenon compare the monument to the 19th Indiana which suffered 62% casualties on day one with the much more ornate and involved monument to the 121st New York on Little Round Top (it suffered two wounded).
The monument to the 108th New York at Ziegler’s Grove north of the Angle takes the Second Corps “Trefoil” or “Club” and incorporates it into the design of its monument in a big way!
One of the most common features you will find on the Union monuments at Gettysburg are corps badges. As discussed earlier, each infantry corps in the Army of the Potomac had a corps badge that was used to identify the soldiers in it. These badges not only served a practical purpose, they also fostered esprit de corps and pride. It is not surprising, then, to see these badges emblazoned on many of the monuments on the battlefield. If you learn to identify them, you will often have a clue as to which division or corps a regiment belonged to in the Army of the Potomac.
The First Corps had a full moon or full circle as it’s badge. The Second Corps had a trefoil or clover leaf as it’s badge. The Third Corps had a diamond or lozenge as it’s badge. The Fifth Corps badge was a Maltese cross. The Sixth Corps badge was a Greek cross. The Eleventh Corps had a half moon or crescent moon as it’s badge. And finally, the Twelfth Corps had a five pointed star as it’s badge.
Similarly, many monuments include or make use of Branch Designations. The infantry was represented by a horn, the cavalry by crossed sabers, the engineers by a castle, and the artillery by crossed cannons.
Many monuments incorporate the state seal. For example, all Pennsylvania monuments that were erected using the state contribution money feature a bronze Pennsylvania state seal.
Symbols of America and the Union
As one might guess, many monuments use and incorporate patriotic symbols of the Union or the United States of America. Here are some common examples.
Eagles The bald eagle is the national symbol and examples of eagles abound, typically sculpted and perched in various poses on top the regimental monument.
Flags. During the Civil War, a regiment’s flag or “colors” were the heart of the regiment. On both sides, flags were extremely symbolic and would serve as a rally point in the swirling smoke of combat. Capture of an opposing regiment’s color was extremely prized; loss of a regiment’s colors was seen as a sign of disgrace (although in some instances, like during Pickett’s Charge, loss of the colors typically meant a regiment went “all the way” and was not seen as a sign of disgrace). Flags are featured in various forms on many monuments at Gettysburg.
Located on the Loop near the Wheatfield, the 116th Pennsylvania Monument depicts a fallen soldier surrounding by the debris of battle.
Gettysburg was a terribly bloody battle, and many of the monuments take up the theme of loss and sacrifice. These are some of the most poignant and beautiful monuments on the battlefield. Some monuments that feature the theme of death and loss include the 86th New York monument, New York State Monument, the 74th Pennsylvania color bearer, the 67th New York, and the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves beautiful sculpture “By a Comrade’s Grave.”
Enlisted men who fell or played a significant role in the battle were sometimes featured on regimental monuments. Typically, the color bearer of a regiment was featured in such monuments. A few examples include the 54th New York and 13th Massachusetts.
Fallen regimental officers were also sometimes honored on monuments. Some states did not permit officers to be so featured; the 83rd Pennsylvania got around this rule by including a bronze statue bearing a striking resemblance to Colonel Strong Vincent — they just didn’t label him as such! Others include Harrison Jeffords of the 4th Michigan, Patrick O’Rourke of the 140th New York, and Eliakim Sherill 126th New York. Notably, all of these officers were killed during the battle.
Columns and Castles
Columns and “castles” are seen frequently around the battle. Examples include the New Jersey Brigade Monument, 1st New York Artillery Battery G, 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, 154th New York, 120th New York, 44th New York (the largest monument on the battlefield — you can actually climb up it and stand inside the castle), 83rd New York, and the 150th New York on Culp’s Hill.
Regimental Heritage and Origins
Nicknames are similarly alluded to in monuments. For example a buck tail is tucked into the hat of the soldier on the 149th Pennsylvania Monument.
Many monuments at Gettysburg, even of the relatively simple variety, are adorned with various accouterments that a soldier would use in his day to day life. These may be carved out of granite or created from bronze. Examples of such accouterments include kepis, knapsacks, cartridge boxes, drums, rifles, canteens, etc. Examples abound, but a few include the 7th Michigan, 150th Pennsylvania, 56th Pennsylvania, 10th Massachusetts, and the most extreme example, the 88th Pennsylvania’s — the “let’s include EVERYTHING” we possibly carried monument!
In an effort to be different, the 32nd Massachusetts decided upon a soldier’s pup tent for it’s monument.
Monuments shaped like various implements of death are fairly common on the battlefield. Examples of monuments shaped like the familiar Civil War “minie ball” include the 82nd Illinois, 12th Massachusetts, and to the most extreme, 7th New Jersey.
Cannons balls and shells are common features on artillery monuments. Included in this group are the 1st Ohio Battery I and 121st Pennsylvania (a relief of an exploding shell). A typical example of the use of cannon balls on a monument can be found on the 3rd Massachusetts Artillery monument. Many artillery monuments feature such cannon balls.
Actual cannons or tubes are featured in relief or included in several monuments, including the 1st New York Battery I, Cooper’s Battery B, and 1st New York Battery M on Power’s Hill. A monument carved to look like a cannon is to Batteries C & F, 1st Pennsylvania at the Peach Orchard. The 5th New York Artillery monument in the National Cemetery features a miniature model cannon!
Mascots and Animals
Gettysburg’s best known and most beloved “mascot” is Sallie, the regimental dog of the 11th Pennsylvania. You can visit Sallie on Oak Ridge along Doubleday Avenue. She is on the side of the monument facing away from the road.
These include the owl of the 5th Ohio, the rooster of the 7th Ohio, the wolfhound of the New York Irish Brigade, and the 105th Pennsylvania‘s wildcat. The First Vermont Brigade monument is notable for it’s roaring lion.
This thus concludes Monument 101. Hopefully you have a better understanding of some of the features of Gettysburg’s beautiful monuments and memorials, as well as a renewed appreciation for them and for the sacrifices they honor.
Thank you for visiting!