THE GHOST OF SLAVERY EXORCISED ONCE AND FOR ALL: ROMANTIC NATIONALISM AND WHITE BLINDNESS IN HERMON ATKINS MACNEIL’S CIVIL WAR SOLIDERS AND SAILORS MEMORIAL
Hermon Atkins MacNeil
Historic Preservation and Conservation
The plethora of monuments produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a phenomenon dubbed ‘statue mania’ by the scholar Erika Doss, continue to vex today. Removed from original time and context, they can provoke wildly variant readings or simply elude notice altogether, hidden in plain sight. Using various lenses, including urban planning, art history, and the dynamics of memory and history in the half century following the Civil War, this thesis seeks to demonstrate the value of analyzing these everyday monuments. This is done through close and thick examination of one case study: the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Philadelphia, PA. The ensuing analysis argues that the monument, designed by the sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil, celebrates a glorious vision of American virtuousness and heroism by framing the conflict of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery as a moment when the nation truly emerged as its ideal self, worthy of the heroic status afforded to it after World War I. Through this case study, this thesis seeks to understand the ideology behind the commission and placement of the monuments of statue mania to aid both the public and municipalities in future decisions related to management and preservation with a more robust interpretive framework. It works upon strong pre-existing literature to do so but seeks to address a couple of major gaps. These include a lack of scholarship addressing Unionist monuments and scant coverage of the context of urban planning design principles as crucial context for monuments. After surveying nearly three decades of the monuments’ path from planning to fruition, the analytic core of the thesis begins with the latter gap by examining the monument as part of the broader City Beautiful Movement and the landscape of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the two pylons composing the monument operated as a frame for the great canvas of civilization, progress, and glory found in Philadelphia’s great urban planning experiment. Next, the thesis examines Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s past work as an artist, which sought to humanize his indigenous subjects while still vindicating American conquest as a result of the forces of destiny. This notion of an exceptional American destiny later finds voice in Soldiers and Sailors. Then the thesis contrasts Soldiers and Sailors with its primary inspiration, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, and their shared theme of romantic nationalism. Finally, the issues of Civil War memory are further expounded upon, particularly regarding race and the broader trends of sectional reconciliation. In Soldiers and Sailors, the issue of slavery is central, but what is ignored is what is at stake for Black Americans both during and after the war, as these sordid histories are inconvenient to MacNeil’s triumphal narrative. The thesis concludes by examining the implications of the analysis, arguing that it reveals the central problem of monuments: they are intended for public consumption, yet historically have been utterly lacking in any avenue for meaningful public participation. While it is never clean or easy, increased democratic participation and a greater potential for the public to be actively involved with the creation of new monuments can create a richer culture of monuments, attending to the breadth and depth of history rather than the comforting narratives of the powerful.