Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Monuments to Union generals tell stories we need to hear -- May 23, 2019 column


Last Saturday, 17 people gathered at hectic Thomas Circle, where Massachusetts Avenue, 14th Street and M Street intersect in Northwest Washington.

It wasn’t a protest or a line for concert tickets. We were doing something most people don’t – looking past the bumper-cars traffic to the equestrian statue smack in the middle of the traffic circle.

With journalist and history enthusiast Keith White, who leads walking tours for friends, as our guide, we looked closely at about a dozen monuments to Union generals in the nation’s capital, answering the 21st Century question: “Who ARE those guys?”

Until controversy engulfed Confederate monuments across the South, many people knew only the big names -- Lee, Jackson and Davis. The Confederate statues have made us rethink who and what we should honor and why.

Similarly, in Washington, people flock to the monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, while hardly noticing many others. But the uncontentious monuments to victorious Union generals who helped preserve the Union also tell compelling stories.

Two monuments we saw honored Civil War generals from Virginia who made the agonizing decision to stay loyal to the United States -- when doing so meant an irreparable split from friends and family.

(It’s worth noting some Northerners also fought for the South; New Yorker Samuel Cooper and Pennsylvanian John Pemberton became generals in the Confederate Army.)  

Thomas Circle is named for the best Union general you’ve never heard of.
George Henry Thomas was born in 1815 into a slave-holding family on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, near the North Carolina line.

A West Point grad, he served with distinction in Florida and Mexico, and his proud hometown presented him with an engraved silver sword for his bravery in the Mexican war.

He became an artillery and cavalry instructor at the military academy under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who was superintendent. Yet when Lee and other Southerners resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy, Thomas remained.

His sisters, avid secessionists, were so distraught, the story goes, they turned his picture to the wall, denied they had a brother named George, returned his letters unopened, and refused to send him the sword he’d left with them for safe-keeping.

Thomas was a brilliant military strategist. He managed to hold his position and avoid a rout during the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, earning the valiant nickname, the “Rock of Chickamauga.”

When his statue in Washington was dedicated in 1879, 14 years after the Civil War ended and nine years after Thomas died of a stroke at 53, the federal government shut down for the day and former soldiers flooded the city.

But Thomas never reconciled with his sisters. Near the end of their long lives, they gave his sword to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.

Another Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union army was Major General Winfield Scott, born in Dinwiddie County in 1786.

A hero of the Mexican War, Scott was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his love of discipline and pomp.

By 1861, when the Civil War started, Scott was the army’s top general, but he was in poor health and couldn’t even mount his horse. He recommended President Lincoln name his fellow Virginian Lee to lead the Army.

When Lee refused, Scott is said to have told him: “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so.”

Scott resigned, wrote a two-volume autobiography and died in 1866.

The sculptor of Scott’s monument put him on a small mare, his favorite mount. But Scott’s family insisted a great military man should be shown on a stallion. The sculptor made an adjustment. Today, most people don’t notice, but in 1874, the statue was widely ridiculed.

The Scott monument is in busy Scott Circle, where Massachusetts and Rhode Island avenues and 16th Street NW meet. 

On Memorial Day, we honor those who gave their lives in military service.

We owe respect and a deep debt of gratitude to all who serve and sacrifice, and especially to Virginians Thomas and Scott who made the wrenching decision to fight to preserve the United States.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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