Battlefield Markers & Monuments: The Civil War Correspondents Memorial

Near the summit of Crampton’s Gap, driving up from the west, Gapland Road makes a quick curve due east before snaking over the top of South Mountain and curling down the far side. This last little juke, right next to a pottery complex, points to the open view of the mountaintop where—suddenly—the Civil War Correspondents Memorial Arch looms into view. 

Perhaps it’s my own professional bias, but I’ve always admired this stately yet awkward construct. It tries to be classical yet modern, with arches and tablets and turrets and even a Roman god. But for all the arches, they don’t really lead anywhere. The monument is forty feet wide and fifty feet tall but only a few feet deep. Yet symbolism seems built into every nook, cranny, and orifice.

Three small arches represent “description,” “depiction,” and “photography.”

Atop one chimney-like column, a pen crosses a sword—illustrating which one is mightier.

“Speed” and “heed” seem like tools of the trade or reminders, overlooked by two horses’ heads (“steeds”?) high above.

In an alcove on the monument’s face, Mercury, the messenger to the Roman gods, stands fleet-footed, with wings on his doughboy-like helmet, ready to bring news from the field of battle. He carries a pan pipe in one hand; with the other, he holds his partially drawn sword.

The backside of the monument features the names of Civil War correspondents, artists, and photographers. A few names stand out to most buffs—Matthew Brady, Alfred Waud, Charles Coffin, William Swinton—but to those of us who’ve studied Civil War-era journalism, it’s a veritable who’s who of fabulous personalities, colorful writers, and invaluable imagery.

Sylvanus Cadwallader, who did so much to help keep U.S. Grant on the straight and narrow . . . Henry Raymond, who founded the New York Times . . . Edward Capsey, who upset George Gordon Meade so badly that Meade had him placed backwards on a mule with a sign that said “Libeler of the Press” and drummed out of camp . . . John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary who wrote anonymous “dispatches” to the papers as part of Lincoln’s efforts to influence public opinion . . . W. L. Sheppard, whose sketch of Lee and Jackson at the “Crackerbox Meeting” has become iconic . . . and on and on.

I note names not listed, too, such as Thomas Morris Chester, a black correspondent for the Philadelphia Press . . . William Howard “Bull Run” Russell, the British reporter whose frantic but incomplete report of the war’s first major battle led readers to think the North had carried the day . . . Henry Wing, the New York Tribune reporter to whom Ulysses S. Grant vowed, after crossing the Rapidan River in May 1864, that there would be “no turning back.”

The man responsible for the memorial has his name etched there, too: George Alfred Townsend, the youngest and one of the most accomplished of all the war correspondents. He published under the penname “Gath”—his initials with an “h” added on the end, inspired by a Biblical quote, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askalon” (II Samuel, 1:20).

By 1884, Townsend had gained an international following and, with the corresponding funds that came with his best-selling work, he purchased land atop South Mountain and began to create a writers’ retreat he called “Gapland” (because it stood in Crampton’s Gap). Along with several buildings and an unused mausoleum, he also erected the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, dedicated on October 16, 1896. October 16 also happens to be my daughter’s birthday, and since she’s the one who got me into all this Civil War stuff in the first place, the resonance there also added to the memorial’s appeal for me.

The monument, funded by a subscription drive (ironic for something newspaper-related, eh!), says:

To the Army Correspondents
Artists 1861-65
Whose toils cheered the fireside
Educated provinces of rustics into
a bright nation of readers
and gave incentive to narrate
distant wars and explore dark lands.

Today, Gapland is now Gathland State Park, run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The arch is maintained by the Antietam National Battlefield.

The Appalachian Trail winds along the crest of South Mountain, spitting hikers out at Gapland, where they crown around the public restrooms, which have signs warning hikers not to wash their dishes in the sinks. A crosswalk takes the trail across Gapland Road in front of the memorial and then along the edge of the parking lot before climbing back into the forest on the far side.

Civil War correspondents have frequently been described as a “Bohemian brigade” because of their eccentricities, their literary (and sometimes imaginative) flair, and their often-itinerant lifestyles. “Mostly rough, sometimes ready,” author James M. Perry said of them in his excellent and entertaining book on the Bohemian brigade. (Read this post for a little more about Civil War journalism.)

It’s fitting that the memorial to the correspondents is as much of a mishmash as they themselves were as a group. It is eclectic and Bohemian just as they were—and proud, too. It evokes, in its way, a kind of “last bastion.” Placed as it was at the top of Crampton’s Gap, where D. H. Hill’s Confederates held firm for nearly a day against a much stronger Union advance, the monument suggests a strong defense (although, I have to add, it faces the opposite direction Hill’s men faced).

When I visit the War Correspondents Memorial, I feel like I’ve come to pay my respects to and be with my people. Here, my Civil War interest and journalism background intersect—on a battlefield and at a writers’ retreat—and I am delighted. Perhaps here, more than anywhere, I have a touchstone as a writer of Civil War history.

4 Responses to Battlefield Markers & Monuments: The Civil War Correspondents Memorial

  1. Chris: Another wonderfully informative post. We’re in your debt. Thanks for continuing to enlighten, maybe even inspire, us.

    There was a WWII era newspaper columnist who would frequently have a section to his column entitled, ” Things I wouldn’t know unless I read my mail.” We can paraphrase by adding “e-” to that.
    So, keep those e-mails coming!

    Norman Vickers

  2. Fascinating story. I want to visit the South Mountain sites sometime, and will add the Correspondents Memorial to my list. Thanks.

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