A Monumental Effort: Restoring Monuments at Gettysburg

150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, preservationists focus on maintaining the battlefield's bronze and granite monuments.

An outstretched arm seemingly severed at the shoulder, fist tightly clenched, lies amid clutter on a wooden bench in the workshop outside Lucas Flickinger’s office. Nearby, I spy the head of a Civil War soldier setting on a display stand. Not that Flickinger’s surroundings are particularly gruesome. The arm is granite and will soon brandish a sword atop the monument to the 11th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on the Gettysburg battlefield. The head is a wax model done for the restoration of the battlefield’s 4th New York Independent Battery Monument. It fell victim to the same vandalism spree in February 2006 that cost the 11th Massachusetts its arm.

Flickinger is a slim, serious-eyed man with a ponytail. He heads the Maintenance Division of the Monument Preservation Branch at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. His department maintains the park’s 1,328 monuments, which include everything from the large regimental memorials and equestrian bronzes to the smaller flank and position markers. “On top of that we’re responsible for 410 cannons, 164 battery tablets—the list goes on and on,” Flickinger says. “We like to say we touch or maintain roughly a third of the collection each year.”

He does all that with a full-time staff of three plus an additional three seasonal employees. During the 
warmer months the seasonal staff members work in the field, steam cleaning stone monuments, hot waxing bronzes, or repainting cast iron cannon carriages the War Department commissioned in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In winter the full-timers work in the cannon shop across town, restoring carriages and taking on other tasks they can do inside, whether it’s repainting a plaque or repairing fence pieces.

This year the battlefield’s monuments will receive even more attention than usual. In July, Gettysburg commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle in which George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on July 1–3, 1863. The park expects to host large crowds of visitors, not all of whom will respect park rules to not touch the monuments. They will contemplate what happened here on three bloody days a century and a half ago, when 51,000 soldiers, North and South, fell dead, were wounded, or went missing.

Brian Griffin, a full-time National Park Service (NPS) employee shared between Gettysburg and the Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Md., is the only other person inside the little maintenance shop today. He’s crafting replacement pieces for the Iowa State Monument at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi (site of another battle that will commemorate a 150th anniversary this July). Griffin shows me urethane rubber molds with wax versions of horse’s bits. “Sometimes I actually go out and make molds on the statues,” he says. “That’s the way I did that head.” He points to the wax model on the pole.

The 2006 vandals didn’t just damage the statue by knocking it off of its base; they stole the ramrod it held, and also its head. The restorers needed some way to match the originals. Help came via a phone call from New Hampshire. “There are so many people who love Gettysburg,” Flickinger says. “Once the word got out, someone called the park and told them, ‘Hey, I think we have that statue up here in Manchester.’” A team headed north and made a mold from the statute’s head and ramrod, which Griffin used to make wax models for the casting process. The statue returned to its perch in November 2011.

As of press time, the 11th Massachusetts is the last job remaining from the 2006 incident. Finding matching granite was “a one-year ordeal,” Flickinger says. The original stone was fine-flecked Westerly granite from Rhode Island, but that quarry had closed. However, Granite Industries of Vermont managed to procure a block of the stone. Griffin made a mold from what remained of the original arm and then, using photographs of the missing portions, sculpted a clay version. He made another mold from that and used it to cast a plaster model that Granite Industries used when it did the carving. Soon the arm is set to receive a replacement sword and assume its perch on the Emmitsburg Road.

The Gettysburg battlefield resembles a gigantic sculpture garden. Some regimental monuments 
bear figures of soldiers—firing weapons, brandishing flags, riding horses—while many are relatively unadorned. Over the years these tributes in stone and bronze, most of them now more than a century old, have become a second layer of history atop this blood-stained landscape.

On April 30, 1864, the Pennsylvania legislature approved the incorporation of the Gettysburg Battlefield Monument Association (GBMA). “Their intention really was to preserve the battlefield as the monument,” says John S. Heiser, a park historian who has been at Gettysburg for 33 years. As we drive along winding Colgrove Avenue toward Culp’s Hill, Heiser tells me that veteran groups, not the GBMA, placed the first monuments on the battlefield. In fact, when Philadelphia’s John M. Vanderslice spent a week at Gettysburg in 1878 with fellow veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) of Pennsylvania, he noted the GBMA’s “apparent apathy or inactivity.” Vanderslice persuaded a GAR post in Erie, Pa., to erect the first monument on the battlefield, a small stone on Little Round Top honoring Strong Vincent, a Pennsylvania brigade commander mortally wounded on the battle’s second day. (The very first memorial was a small urn dedicated to the 1st Minnesota Infantry in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.)

Vanderslice eventually became the GBMA’s director. With prompting from the newly revived organization, Northern states and veterans groups raised money to erect monuments to its regiments. The GBMA also established basic guidelines—among the most important was that monuments be made from granite instead of more vulnerable limestone, sandstone, or marble. (A few regiments erected monuments before the material guidelines were in place.)

“The stone’s in great shape,” says Dennis Montagna, program manager for the Monument Research 
and Preservation Program in the NPS’s Northeast region. “At this point we’ve really been the beneficiaries of the kind of materials and construction decisions that were made back then.” When Montagna first surveyed the monuments in 1989, many of them still had their original pointing.

But some have suffered. On Culp’s Hill, Heiser shows me damage to the musket-aiming soldier on the joint monument to the 78th and 102nd New York infantries, vandalized in the 1980s. On West Howard Avenue, the unlucky 74th Pennsylvania Infantry Monument fell victim in 2003 to an out-of-control SUV. In the 1990s, vandals toppled the 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry Monument on Wainwright Avenue to steal the time capsule in its base; someone knocked it over again in 2009.

Mother Nature takes her shots, too. On Buford Avenue, Heiser and I gaze up at the elaborate 6th New York Cavalry Monument, which lightning struck in 2007. “They had to take it down to its base and rebuild it,” Heiser says. On East Howard Avenue, the 58th New York Infantry Monument bears scars from a lightning strike in the 1930s.

Back at the maintenance shop, Flic kinger takes me outside to show me another of nature’s casualties, the bronze statue from the 121st New York Infantry Monument on Little Round Top. It now reclines 
on wooden pallets after a falling tree branch hit it in 2011. “I’d much rather be mad at Mother Nature than some person you can’t find,” says Flickinger as he gazes down at the stricken giant. “At least you know what happened and can put together the pieces of the puzzle.”

The 121st statue is just one of the battlefield’s many bronzes, which range from large equestrian generals to small bas-reliefs and state seals. The copper in bronze creates a naturally occurring green tarnish. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Montagna, “a foundryman began developing treatments based on the belief that what you really needed to do was remove all those corrosion products and get down to a bright metal surface and then patina it again.” After blasting away the green corrosion with tiny glass beads to get the sheen of a new penny, the foundryman created his own patinas with chemicals and covered the monuments with clear lacquer.

“That particular form of treatment is no longer used and would be frowned upon these days,” says Tom Podnar. He is the sculpture conservator and metals specialist from McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, Inc. of Oberlin, Ohio, who was hired to work on two of Gettysburg’s “problem child” bronzes, the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry and the Brigadier General Alexander Hays statue.

The first step was to remove the clear lacquer with a chemical stripper. “Getting that stuff off was kind of a mess,” says Brian Griffin. The next step was to use various chemical compounds to create a new patina that matched the rest of Gettysburg’s bronzes. “There’s a lot of critical aesthetic judgment involved at that phase,” Podnar says. Once the statues acquired their new, chocolate brown patinas, they received the same protective coating the park’s other bronzes get: wax. “Specifically it’s called microcrystalline wax,” Podnar says. “It comes from petroleum products. It’s very stable in an outdoor environment.”

One of the last bronzes that still needs restoration is the High-Water Monument, a sculpture of a huge, open book. “One of the reasons they brought me in there was to train their staff in how to do this type of work,” Podnar says. “It’s highly likely that they can do the book themselves and have a successful conclusion.” Every book should have such a happy ending.

Flickinger and I drive through the town of Gettysburg to the cannon workshop, which shares a low brick warehouse with a gift wholesaler. In the painting bay Flickinger introduces me to Barb Adams, one of the shop’s volunteers. She sits by the wheel of a carriage, a light in one hand and a brush in the other, and carefully applies black paint to a wheel rim. Adams says she paints about 15 carriages a year in the shop and another 10 or 12 on the battlefield. “My late husband always wanted to do it,” she says, “and after he died I took up some of his desires. That’s how I got started. I’ve been doing this about 11 years now.”

In the 1990s the Park Service received money to sandblast lead paint from all 410 of the battlefield’s cast-iron carriages so they could be restored. Photos on a wall in the painting bay show rusty and peeling carriages before sandblasting. “That was generally what they looked like,” says Joseph Catchings, who has worked in the shop since 1997. “They were really bad.” Iron cannon tubes were also repainted after sandblasting to remove the lead paint. In comparison, bronze cannon tubes are relatively easy to maintain. “We don’t do anything to refinish the bronze tubes,” says Catchings. “We keep the natural patinas that have developed on them in place. It’s almost like a natural protective coating.”

Michael E. Wright is at work on a carriage in the repair bay. A 23-year veteran of the park service, he’s been working here since 1999. Wright rotates one wheel, which emits a shriek of metal against metal. Its replacement spokes, cast by a foundry in Michigan, look shiny and new, but Wright says today’s casting work is what it was in the 1800s. “There’s a lot of cleanup work, even on the spokes,” he says. I ask him how many carriages he’s worked on. He replies he’s never thought of counting. “A lot,” he finally says.

Bryan Knepper works in the welding bay. He’s been here for three years. “It’s fairly straightforward work,” says Knepper. “It’s meticulous. It’s dirty. You have to be inventive sometimes.” Some of the spokes on the carriage in his bay look pitted, but Knepper tells me he can repair them. “When Barb gets done painting them you’ll think it’s a piece of wood,” he says, looking at the now primer-coated carriage. “It will be a thing of beauty.” And something visitors can enjoy for many anniversaries to come.

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