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Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
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North Carolina’s Union Square

by Catherine W. Bishir (2012)

Bird's-Eye View of the State Capitol and Grounds, Raleigh, N.C., Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Union Square is an oasis of green, constantly traversed by politicians, schoolchildren, office workers, tourists, and pigeons. They move daily through a memorial landscape shaded by a grove of great oaks, centered on the classical State Capitol, and peopled with bronze figures frozen on bases of stone. A young soldier stands high atop a towering column rising to the treetops; a woman seated on a tall base reads to a young boy at her side; warriors at ground level carry a wounded companion; a portly governor gestures in the midst of a political speech; George Washington gazes calmly southward down the principal commercial street.

Here in this central commemorative landscape of the state, for almost two centuries, North Carolinians have placed memorials to honor individuals, events, and causes they valued. They have participated in a long and widespread memorial tradition shared by private and public groups in many locales, including those in neighboring Virginia and South Carolina, and in many other states who have placed monuments on their state capitol grounds to Washington, white Civil War soldiers, statesmen and other illustrious figures, and most recently, to African Americans. These memorial ensembles offer the visitor or reader many different opportunities for learning and reflection and many angles of vision in considering the meaning of our monuments.

Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation, Raleigh, N.C. The North Carolina County Photographic Collection #P0001, NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Of the memorials present on North Carolina's Union Square in 2011, the earliest (1857) depicts George Washington; three erected from 1895 to 1914 commemorate the Civil War; four honor soldiers in subsequent conflicts from the Spanish-American War through the World Wars and Korean Conflict to the Vietnam War. Two statues represent North Carolina governors, Zebulon B. Vance and Charles B. Aycock, and in addition to Washington, one depicts presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James K. Polk whom "North Carolina gave the nation." A few others recall individuals whom a group or individual wished to honor, including educator Charles McIver and Confederate veteran, journalist, and historian Samuel A'Court Ashe.

Besides drawing our attention to these individuals and events, visiting Union Square, whether in person or through the web, also offers opportunities to consider broader issues in memorialization, which can spur our thinking both about this particular landscape and about other sites of public memory and commemoration.

At Union Square as elsewhere, it is rewarding to ponder the "back story" of monuments as well as the subjects depicted and to consider not only the individual monument in isolation but in its relationship to other memorials on other sites. When, why, and how did this particular monument come to be erected here? Each monument is a product of its own times, of human impulses and choices that led to its creation. Often its meaning has as much — if not more — to do with those who created it and the context of its times as it does with the ostensible subject. Thus for every memorial we can ask questions that go beyond "what is this monument about?"

Antebellum Memorials

Throughout the square, whatever the specific subject of individual monuments, we can observe a recurrent theme, as North Carolinians in every era commemorated events and individuals in ways that expressed their sense of North Carolina's place in the nation. This motive informed the state's memorial building here from the outset. When patriotic impulses first spurred an interest in memorials early in the nineteenth century, the state focused not on North Carolinians but on the George Washington, universally revered as the symbol of the United States. For many years, the square laid out in 1792 at the center of Raleigh had been bare of memorials, while the plain, brick state house built there in 1792-1794 attracted ongoing complaints because of its lack of "elegance."

Statue of Washington, in the Rufus Morgan Photographic Collection #P0057, NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

During a flurry of patriotism after the War of 1812, North Carolina launched projects to honor George Washington, commissioning a painting from the celebrated artist Thomas Sully and a statue from the internationally renowned Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (see State Capitol Memorials). In the classical spirit of the day, Canova produced a seated figure of Washington depicted as a Roman general clad in a toga. In anticipation of its arrival, preparation for this important sculpture prompted a major remodeling of the State House in 1820-1821 to receive and shelter it, giving it a dome, cruciform plan, and pseudoporticoes. As the container for the celebrated statue, the revamped State House thus became the first commemorative structure on Union Square. In 1831, the State House burned and with it Canova's statue. When the new State Capitol was built in 1833-1840 on the site, its design provided a space in the central rotunda for the Canova Washington, which remained empty for more than a century.

More than two decades passed before the state invested in another commemorative figure — again George Washington, this time as a standing bronze figure depicting him in his officer's uniform. Again, the figure embodied the work of an internationally renowned artist and asserted North Carolina's place in the national artistic and patriotic firmament: it was one of many bronze reproductions of Jean Antoine Houdon's marble sculpture installed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond in 1796. Purchased early in 1857, North Carolina's Washington figure was dedicated with patriotic fanfare on July 4 of that year, drawing a crowd of more than 10,000 to the event. By the 1850s, Washington's symbolic importance as father of the nation had grown with the years, as evidenced by the Washington Monument under construction in the nation's capital and the nascent campaign to save his home, Mount Vernon. By this time, too, Washington's personification of national identity carried added meaning amid rising tensions between North and South.

Civil War, Reconstruction, and Reunion

Glimpse of Capitol Grounds from Vance Monument, Raleigh, N.C., in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

After weathering the Civil War, North Carolinians endured bitter political and racial conflict during and after Reconstruction. It was many a hard year before North Carolinians returned to the creation of a memorial landscape at Union Square. The end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the re-election of former Civil War governor Zebulon Vance in that year signaled white Democrats' full "redemption" of the state. As they strove to consolidate power despite challenges from Republicans, including many black voters, during the 1880s Democratic leaders began campaigns to erect civic memorials to their heritage, including the war that had remade their world. By this time, memorialization of the Civil War dead was well underway in cemeteries in both the North and the South, and Confederate Memorial Day, celebrated in North Carolina each May 10, provided an opportunity for white Southerners to honor the dead and to reiterate the Lost Cause saga.

In his 1885 Memorial Day oration in Raleigh, Confederate veteran and Democratic politician Alfred Moore Waddell issued a call for public memorials at the capitol that proved to be prescient. Stressing the importance of patriotic monuments to North Carolina's place and prestige in the nation, he said that "every civilized land" had monuments to its most illustrious sons, but North Carolinians were failing to assume their responsibility to honor their heritage. Defeat and poverty were no longer an excuse. "Go to any other State Capitol," he challenged his audience, "and if its public grounds do not contain some statue or monument in commemoration of its great men, its legislative halls at least are hung with portraits of its Governors." But in Raleigh, the visitor would find "No monument, no statue, no bust, not even a portrait to remind you that North Carolina ever produced one man that she thought worthy of remembrance." He laid out an agenda that he and others would pursue for decades to come, which would mark Union Square with monuments, fill niches in the Capitol with busts, and in the process inscribe one version of history in the state's principal memorial landscape.

Monument Building, 1895-1950

Confederate Monument and Olivia Raney Library, Raleigh, N.C. , Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Ten years later, on May 20, 1895, Waddell delivered an oration at the unveiling of the first great monument in that campaign — the North Carolina Confederate Monument. Of all the monuments on the square, the back story of the Confederate Monument is probably the most dramatic, for its creation between 1892 and 1895 took place amidst intense political conflict. In 1892, Democratic Confederate veterans began a drive for a Confederate monument for the state and soon enlisted the aid of the Ladies' Memorial Association of Raleigh. The LMA, founded in 1866 by elite white women who supported the Confederate tradition, had already established the Confederate cemetery in Raleigh and erected a memorial there and regularly sponsored Memorial Day celebrations. They knew well the strategies for gaining political and financial support for their cause. In 1892, the veterans, the LMA leaders, and others formed the North Carolina Monumental Association to erect a civic rather than funereal memorial on some public site in Raleigh. This private group began fundraising, but their progress was slow. In 1893 they turned to the largely Democratic state legislature for an appropriation of $10,000. With the women crowding the legislative halls, the lawmakers readily authorized the funds and directed that the monument be placed on Union Square. The Association chose a site, commissioned a design, signed a $25,000 contract with the nationally active Muldoon Monument Company of Louisville, Kentucky, and on May 24, 1894, held a gala cornerstone laying event.

But the game suddenly changed. In the 1894 election, an alliance or "Fusion" of Populists and Republicans soundly defeated the Democrats and took a majority of seats in the racially and politically mixed legislature that took office in 1895. Meanwhile, bills were coming due on the monument, which was nearing completion. Again the Association appealed to the legislature for $10,000. This time, the politically divided legislature voted against their request. "It is not at all certain that any monuments ought to be built on either side to perpetuate the memories of our unnatural civil war," argued the Populist newspaper. "The sooner the rancors and hates of that unhappy struggle are forgotten by both North and South, the better it will be for the whole country." Only after the avidly Democratic News and Observer created a false linkage between the monument vote and a legislative recognition of the death of Frederick Douglass did inflamed public opinion tip the balance. The newspaper called for "all patriotic men [to] stand together to preserve the Anglo Saxon civilization" by supporting the monument. Some legislators continued their opposition: one said "the memories of the war should be buried out of sight, he was in favor of digging a hole and burying all monuments." Under political pressure and the gaze of the ladies, the monument bill passed.

Raleigh, N.C. Confederate Monument and State Capitol, West Side, Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

At the dedication of the monument on May 20, 1895, while Fusionists still controlled the legislature, the speeches and featured dignitaries of the day expressed the views of the primarily Democratic leadership that vindicated the Confederate tradition. Key themes dominated the rhetoric of the day: the valor and sacrifice of North Carolina's soldiers in the Confederacy — "First at Bethel, Last at Appomattox" read the inscribed motto — and the justness and honor of the Confederate cause within the framework of American history.

Both of these concepts fed into the underlying movement of the times — the reunion of North and South on largely southern terms. The Democratic leadership that had "redeemed" the state had accomplished much already in reinstating the old political and racial hierarchy and in undoing many of the reforms enacted during Reconstruction. The Federal government, encouraging "home rule" in the South, was backing off on support of rights for blacks. The Supreme Court's ruling on "separate but equal" facilities in Plessy v. Ferguson, decided on May 18, 1896, provided the legal basis for Jim Crow racial segregation nationwide, and further changes were on the way.

Charles Brantley Aycock, Raleigh, N.C. Photo courtesy of Donald Burgess Tilley Jr.

In North Carolina, however, the political turmoil had just begun. In the election of 1896, the Fusionist alliance of Populists and Republicans triumphed again, increasing their representation in the legislature and putting a Republican in the governor's office. Determined to recapture power, in 1898 Democratic leaders organized a "White Supremacy Crusade" that produced an overwhelming Democratic victory and retook a majority in the legislature. Throughout the campaign and its aftermath, which included a violent white Democratic coup in Wilmington, its spokesmen employed history in their cause, linking their "Revolution" of 1898 and 1900 as well as the Confederate cause with their ancestors' actions in the American Revolution. In a second campaign in 1900, in which they employed similar strategies, Democrats elected Charles B. Aycock as governor, increased their majority in the legislature, and won ratification for a constitutional amendment that essentially disfranchised black voters.

In the wake of the Confederate monument and the triumph of the White Supremacy campaign, the victorious Democratic leadership inaugurated an era of impassioned memorializing. The saga of continuity and legitimacy — from colonial heroes through the American Revolution and Civil War (and the evils of Reconstruction) up to the recently reinstated Democracy — overcame all other stories in the state's official version of its history. Historians and other cultural leaders joined with political figures to raise "state pride" by telling this history in print and image.

Worth Bagley Monument, Raleigh, N.C., in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Memorials and monuments at the State Capitol offered a prime opportunity to celebrate and remember. During the next few decades, a full roster of memorials filled in among the trees of Union Square as well as inside the capitol. As was the case when the Confederate Monument was unveiled in 1895, several asserted the reunion of North and South on southern terms and honored the leaders who had contributed to this outcome. All of them continued the broader story of proclaiming the place of North Carolina in the nation.

One of the first actions of the Democratic legislature elected in 1898 was to authorize a monument to the recently deceased Zebulon Vance, who had not only served as governor during the Civil War but had also led in the Redemption of the state, won the governorship in 1876 and symbolized the state's return to the Union as a United States Senator from 1879 until his death in 1894. When Democrats unveiled the larger-than-life-size statue at the north axis of the Capitol on August 22, 1900, just days after the election, no one missed its significance: "a fitting time," said the publisher of the News and Observer, "for Aycock, the new Governor, was to receive it."

The next memorial, a seemingly simple standing figure of the young soldier Worth Bagley, inscribed "First Fallen," affirmed national reunion in another way. In 1898, Bagley was the first American to die in the Spanish-American War. For many Americans, that war, in which men from North and South fought together again, symbolized sectional reunion through the spilling of blood, and the national press hailed the young Southerner's death on May 11, 1898, as sealing the "covenant of brotherhood between the north and the south." North Carolina promptly moved to commemorate Bagley on Union Square. Speakers at the dedication on May 20, 1907, asserted that his death had healed the breach of sectionalism, and thus inaugurated "a new era of Union," in which "the logical adjustment of history would again give the leadership of the nation to the South." With Reconstruction thoroughly rebutted, the "redeemed" state took its place in the nation.

Charles Duncan McIver Statue, Raleigh, Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Memorializing continued apace. In 1912, the state unveiled a standing figure of educator Charles McIver, who had died suddenly in the prime of life only six years earlier, much loved and admired as the founder and president of the state's first college for women in Greensboro. Widespread fundraising among schoolchildren and teachers, among others, supported production of the bronze figure by artist Frederick Ruckstuhl. Just a year later, its significance was extended when the college he had founded unveiled a duplicate figure by the same artist in front of the main building on campus. In 1924, a memorial to the recently deceased Charles B. Aycock joined Vance's company as the only other governor represented on Union Square. Following the precedent of Vance's figure, sculptor Gutzon Borglum depicted Aycock as a standing figure in mid-gesture of speaking, evoking his eloquence in his highly effective campaign to promote public education. The iconography of the bas relief panels stressed his role as "Education Governor," passing over, as did subsequent histories, his role in the white supremacy crusades. The pair of governors, Vance and Aycock, became icons of the Democratic state. In time their birthplaces became state historic sites and, fulfilling Waddell's urgings of 1885, the state installed figures of Vance and Aycock (in 1916 and 1932, by sculptors Borglum and Charles Keck, respectively) to represent North Carolina in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol and thereby to mark the state's place in the nation.

Memorialization of the Civil War produced two additional monuments on Union Square. In 1914, the state unveiled the monument to the Women of the Confederacy, depicting a seated figure of a woman reading to her grandson standing beside her, "inciting him to emulate the deeds of his father." Sponsored by a wealthy Confederate veteran, the memorial, like many others, honored the sacrifices of Confederate women and their role in ennobling their cause in the national memory.

The figure of Henry Lawson Wyatt, unveiled in 1912 and sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is not only one of the most artistically accomplished monuments on Union Square but also one of the most symbolically laden . Created by the nationally celebrated sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the heroically scaled bronze figure honors the nineteen-year-old carpenter from Edgecombe County, whose death in action on June 10, 1861, gave rise to the state's claim "First at Bethel." In contrast to the staid stances of almost all of the figures at Union Square, Wyatt's figure displays dramatic emotional and artistic impact both in his facial expression confronting battle and death, and in the dynamic forward movement of his expertly structured form, showing him in mid-step leaning into the fight. The Wyatt monument at Union Square already had ties to other memorials — a memorial fountain of 1904 in his hometown of Tarboro and a simple marker dedicated to him by North Carolinians at the Bethel battleground in Virginia in 1905.

Mid and Late Twentieth Century Commemorations

Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, Raleigh, N.C., in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), NC Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

In Union Square's last memorial connected with the Civil War, in 1940 friends of Samuel A'Court Ashe (1840-1938) — the Confederate veteran, historian, and indefatigable defender of the southern cause who had promoted the "Farthest at Gettysburg" claim in 1904 — placed a modest granite marker with a bronze portrait plaque in his memory.

With the passage of time and the deaths of the last Confederate veterans, the focus of memorializing shifted away from the Civil War and national reunion. Honoring the service of North Carolinians in World War I, two small monuments appeared — for the Old Hickory Highway (1930) and for the Wildcat Division (1941 — the latter in the year when the United States entered the next world war. As the country recovered from World War II and entered a period of new national confidence, and North Carolinians embarked on efforts to claim a newly prominent and progressive identity among the states, a new monument depicting the "three presidents North Carolina gave the Nation" displaced Zebulon Vance at the east side of the Capitol. How this new memorial came about and what the response was to moving the Civil War southward to face Governor Aycock are "back stories" that invite further research. Once this monument was completed, the North Carolina Historical Commission enacted a moratorium on further memorials on the square, which the commission deemed sufficiently filled with markers of history.

North Carolina Veteran's Monument, Raleigh, NC. Photo courtesy of Natasha Smith.

Yet the passion for memorialization was not to be denied. Twice the legislature responded to veterans' groups to override the moratorium, producing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of 1987 and the North Carolina Veterans Memorial in 1990. The latter memorial, a large composition on the north side of the capitol, honors those who served in the two World Wars and the Korean Conflict. It was initiated after the Vietnam memorial by those who believed the sacrifices in those earlier wars deserved recognition. Considerable controversy attended its erection on a site with a previously unimpeded view between the Capitol and the Legislative Building, and some critics objected to its iconography, in which the tall base carries an immense female Victory figure almost identical to the Soviet World War II monument in Budapest.

The much smaller but more dramatic Vietnam Veterans Memorial, like the Confederate Monument ninety years before, especially embodies the complex issues of its times and is linked with many other memorials across the state and nation. As the nation came to terms with the Vietnam War that ended in 1975, and as often neglected veterans of that contentious war sought recognition for their sacrifices, a growing movement to erect suitable memorials to that war brought new approaches to the language of memorials, most famously in Maya Lin's powerful memorial in Washington, D. C., dedicated in 1982.

For the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Raleigh, sculptor Abbe Godwin likewise reflected on the conflicted meaning of the war. Instead of a monumental, heroic figure standing high on a pedestal, she created a highly realistic grouping of soldiers entitled "After the Firefight," with two men struggling to rescue their wounded comrade while scanning the sky for further attacks. Rendered at life size, these figures represent a white man, a black man, and a Native American, the latter two the only such individuals depicted on Union Square. By catching them in mid-action and placing them at ground level, the dramatic composition brings the figures directly into the experience of their viewers, while the painstakingly executed details of their faces, uniforms, and weapons makes them seem even more real and approachable.

Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, Raleigh, NC. Photo courtesy of Natasha Smith.

Like the Maya Lin work in Washington, the effect of this small monument engages the participation of its visitors in ways probably scarcely anticipated. Here, as in Washington, visitors including veterans and family members of lost soldiers come to attach mementoes to the memorial, leaving not only flowers but often a note, a photograph, and sometimes a medal. And here, at the only sculptural memorial on the square positioned at ground level, almost daily people touch these figures: adults trace the features or examine a weapon while perhaps remembering lost friends or family members or their own experiences, while children clamber over the sculpture, peer at the warriors' faces, and like previous generations of children at this and other memorials, hear stories told by teachers, parents, and grandparents of deeds long past.


On February 27, 2009, Patricia Timmons-Goodman, the first black female justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, officiated at the swearing-in of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. During the meeting, Justice Timmons-Goodman pointed out that when she looked out upon Union Square from her Supreme Court office she noticed the absence of inclusiveness in the monuments on the square, and observed that many of the schoolchildren who visit the square see no faces that resemble their own. Her call for greater inclusiveness echoed the views of many North Carolinians. In 2010 the state appointed a commission to study the situation and make recommendations. As treated elsewhere on this web site, the commission recommended lifting the moratorium in order to represent the importance of Native Americans, African Americans, and women in the state's history. Various ideas for these memorials have been put forward. In a turn of events universally familiar in the history of memorial building, in 2011 economic problems stalled the process. Still, the concept has been established, the moratorium lifted, and ideas set forth by groups committed to honoring a fuller range of North Carolinians. In time, sponsors may come forward to fund these like other monuments in the past.

Can we imagine a new experience we might have in Union Square one day, when we might sit quietly to meditate in honor of North Carolina Native Americans? Tip a hat to a figure of 1921 legislator Lillian Exum? Meet the steady gaze of black Congressman George H. White and read his 1901 words of farewell to Congress? See Ella Baker gesturing in mid-speech at a Civil Rights demonstration? Will we look up one day to an imposing bronze figure of a soldier of the United States Colored Troops, clad in a Union uniform and shouldering a rifle or standing at ease on his pedestal? Or will other subjects and designs best embody the hopes and possibilities of future generations?

Whatever comes to pass, we will look at new as well as old memorials as depictions of the people, events, and times they commemorate, but we can also see them in the broader context of twenty-first century commemorations in North Carolina and beyond, and above all of the times in which they were initially considered and may be planned, designed, and erected.