Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Confederate Memorial in Baltimore

Ruckstull, Frederick Wellington,
Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, 1903
Art has the power to remove noise and highlight what the artist thinks is essential about the subject he or she depicts. But what about when the artist gets it wrong—what about when he or she focuses upon the wrong element, or depicts something that does not in fact exist? I recently discovered an outdoor monument in Baltimore that I think illustrates this problem.

On Mount Royal Avenue, just a few blocks south of West North Avenue, sits Frederick Wellington Ruckstull’s 1903 Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Depicted is a winged goddess of victory with flowing vestments and up-opened wings. With her left hand high, she clutches a laurel wreath in an act of solemn presentation. With her right arm, she braces a dying Confederate soldier, giving him support as his one hand grips his chest, and his the other hand holds the battle standard of the Confederacy, tip pointing slightly downward. The soldier’s head is tilted toward the bosom of the goddess and the eyes on his weary face are closed—perhaps the last fitful moments of the young soldier's life. Among the inscribing upon the sculpture’s plinth are the Latin words Gloria Victis (“glory to the vanquished”), Deo Vindice, (“God vindicates”), and the phrase "Glory stands beside ov'r grief."

Let’s make sure we get this right. God vindicates . . . the Confederacy?

Buberl, M. Caspar,
Appomattox, 1889
I think it is useful to contrast Ruckstull's work with another Confederate memorial, this one in Alexandria, Virginia. Caspar Buberl's 1889 Appomattox depicts an unarmed Confederate soldier, standing in a contrapposto pose, his head down with heavy eyes and a sunken face, arms crossed, and with one hand tightly gripping the cloth of his shirt, and his other hand gripping his hat.

I think Buberl's monument utterly suits the subject that it seeks to memorialize. It doesn’t glamorize the Confederacy, or whitewash its horrors. Quite the contrary; the veteran could just as easily be standing over the graves of dead comrades as he comes to the realization that the Confederacy fought for a benighted end. Erected by the Robert E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans, the sculpture nevertheless speaks to a far larger audience than those who identified themselves with the Confederacy. An emancipated slave, now proud and independent in his freedom, could easily have have looked upon the work and been moved by it. The emancipated slave could easily have seen a veteran who fought for a lost cause—and a man whose dedication now recoils upon him.

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, detail.
And therein lies the genius of Appomattox. The sculpture is one of those rare artworks that serves as a lens for our view of the Confederacy through its depiction of the emotional pain of the veteran. It is the kind of work that allows us to imagine what the veteran is thinking—and also imagine what he should be thinking. More than one hundred years after its making, the sculpture still imparts a valuable lesson.

In contrast, Ruckstull's far larger monument seeks little more than to propagandize the glory of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It's not surprising given Baltimore's southern sympathies during the Civil War, but its statement in the present moment is jarring. And consider that Ruckstull even depicts a man in his last moments of life. Ruckstull's work depicts the more graphic and tragic horror, but his depiction manages little more than to trivialize it. 

Appomattox, detail.
And even more than that, Ruckstull's work is a finger in the eye of anyone who would disagree with its message that death for the Confederacy was a glorious end. The same emancipated slave moved by the subtle conflicts of Buberl's Appomattox would be left horrified by Ruckstull's Soldiers and Sailors Monument. How could he not? While clearly a work of technical mastery, with its ascendent angelic wings, flowing drapery, and the tortured face of its dying hero, Ruckstull's monument ultimately advances little more than a moral corruption. Gloria Victis, Deo Vindice.

According to the New York Times' coverage of a speech Ruckstull gave before the people of Boston in 1903 and the same year of his Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Ruckstull believed that “the functions of open air statuary are to delight, to refine, to console, to stimulate.” These are worthy goals for public art. It’s a shame then that Ruckstull's own monument here in Baltimore did not live up to his stated ambition.


  1. I think it quite hypocritical that we glorify a victorious war (Revolutionary) where the greatest General and Political minds of the day was substantial slave-owners, then we demonize the vanquished (Confederacy) for attempting to cling to that way of life a mere 80 years later, within the lifetime of those born during the Revolution. The chips fall where they may, but don't be holier than thou because there were no slaves in England at the time of the Revolution.

  2. I don't think celebrating the American revolution is hypocritical at all, because while slavery was an aspect of the American founding, it was not the essential aspect. The founders' achievement was to apply the enlightenment's view of individual rights to a pioneering government predicated upon the protection of those rights. Never in the history of mankind had a government been so explicitly created, and even in the face of that government's egregious shortcomings when it came to slavery, the founders' core principles in defense of individualism were strong enough to ultimately prevail.

    In that light, the founders and their revolution deserve our profound respect. With them, the world is a far better place.

  3. Thank you for sharing your observations here. This is not the kind of commentary that I would expect from a law student, and I am glad for it.

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