Friday, May 8, 2015

What Civil War statues are whispering to us

Col. William Palmer was honored with a statue in Colorado Springs.
There is a coded message in the sure-footed stance of his horse.
     What can a statue tell you about a war hero? 
     More than you might think.
     For example, look at this statue in Colorado Springs. The inscription says only, "General William Jackson Palmer, Founder of the City of Colorado Springs, 1871."
     The fact that Palmer is portrayed in a suit rather than a military uniform tells you he was more than a soldier. He was a modest man who preferred to be called Colonel (he was breveted as a general for the last three weeks of Stoneman's Raid), and he probably would have been content that the inscription does not boast about his Medal of Honor.
     Also significant is his westward gaze toward Pike's Peak, since Palmer was a pioneer in building railroads across the West. The fact that the statue is bronze is a little ironic, because Palmer made his fortune with the iron horse. (By the way, isn't it ironic that ironic does not mean iron-like?)
     Note that the saddle is not cinched, which may be a subtle message from the sculptor. In 1906 the 70-year-old Palmer was paralyzed when he fell from his horse while riding in a pink-rocked canyon known as "the Garden of the Gods."
     There's one more thing you can assume based on the stance of his horse: Palmer was not wounded in battle. (See our Mother's Day story to read about one close call.)
     His statue is consistent with a design code followed by many equestrian sculptors:
  • If the rider was killed in battle, the horse has two legs off the ground.
  • If the rider was wounded in battle, the horse has one leg off the ground.
  • If the rider was not wounded, the horse has all four hoofs on the ground.
     Checking generals who were directly or indirectly associated with Gen. George Stoneman, I found that 10 out of 16 statues complied with this code.
     For example, there are at least six equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee, who was not wounded in the Civil War and died in peacetime. In four of the six, Traveller is portrayed with all four hoofs on the ground. In Dallas, he has one leg up, and in Charlottesville, two up. (Lee and Stoneman served together in Texas and Missouri before the Civil War, and their troops clashed at Chancellorsville and Lynchburg.)
Jackson and Lee in Baltimore

     Stonewall Jackson was wounded May 2, 1863 at Chancellorsville and died eight days later. This is indicated in the Baltimore statue with Lee, where Little Sorrel has one hoof up; though in Richmond he has all four down. (Jackson and Stoneman were roommates at West Point.)
    Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was killed in battle in 1864, and his statue in Richmond signifies this with the two front hoofs uplifted. (Stuart and Stoneman were peers and rivals in developing cavalry tactics.)
    Confederate Gen. John Breckinridge survived a war wound but was convicted of treason and lived four years in exile. His galloping statue in Louisville portrays him as a martyr with just two hooves on the ground. (Stoneman defeated Breckinridge at Saltville, Va., and Breckinridge was Palmer's foil for the last week of the manhunt for Jefferson Davis.)
     Union generals Ulysses Grant, Philip Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George Thomas all died in peacetime, and all their statues in Washington have four feet on the ground. Confederate cannons were melted down to cast the bronze statue of Gen. Thomas, who was Stoneman's commander.

     What about Gen. Stoneman? He had the perfect name for a marble carving, but as far as I can tell he was never honored with a statue, equestrian or otherwise. However, he does have a grand memorial in Yosemite National Park.

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