Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Unfinished Nation, an Unfinished Monument (or Beef, It's What's for dinner)

Any discussion of key landmarks in Washington, DC can not fail to mention the Washington Monument, that  iconic memorial, which today towers over all structures within DC's boundaries. Perhaps a fitting symbol of the unfinished nature of the Union in 1861, the Washington Monument-- dedicated to the Father of the Country and the Capital's namesake--sat incomplete throughout the war.

The Washington Monument's cornerstone was set in 1848.  However,  lackluster fundraising, internal squabbles (including "Know Nothing" involvement) and the withdraw of Congressional funding led to a halt in construction in 1856.  The author Mark Twain would later sarcastically observe that "the Monument is to be finished, some day, and at that time our Washington will have risen still higher in the nation's veneration, and will be known as the Great-Great-Grandfather of his Country."

The failure to complete the Monument before the outbreak of the war was not indicative of any lack of enthusiasm, both North and South, regarding George Washington some sixty years after his death.  Americans, both North and South, continued to venerate Washington and both sides claimed his legacy for their own cause.  Southerners viewed their struggle as a Second American Revolution and naturally invoked that great Virginian, and a slaveholder, to justify their cause.  In 1861, one Georgian even proposed that the new Confederacy be named the Republic of Washington.  Although this motion was not adopted, the official Great Seal of the Confederacy depicted a mounted figure of General Washington.

Lincoln was not about to cede Washington's legacy to the South.  In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, Lincoln rejected southern agitators' attempts to appropriate Washington's legacy for their own sectional agenda:  "Could Washington himself, speak, would he cast the blame of that sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you who repudiate it?" Upon his departure from Springfield in February 1861, President-Elect Lincoln observed the grave work ahead, upon which the very Union that Washington had helped to forge depended :  'I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.'



Although the incomplete monument only reached one-third of its eventual height, at approximately 150 feet, it still towered over other Washington structures.  (Today there is still a discernible difference in the shading of the marble, showing where construction  had been halted before the war)   However, the unfinished monument did not impress Mark Twain, who quipped that it looked like a "hollow, over-sized chimney."

As tens of thousands of soldiers descended on Washington in answer to the President's call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, space was needed to train, feed and shelter them.  The monument's grounds were used for drilling and also hosted large cattle herds.  As a result of these herds and a slaughterhouse established by the army, the area was sometimes called Beef Depot and the Washington National Cattle Yard.

One can only imagine the wonderful odors that must have emanated from the Monument's grounds during the war.  In 1862, Frank Leslie's Illustrated News painted a dismal picture of a Washington Monument “surrounded by offal rotting two or three feet deep.”


As the country reunited, public interest in completing the Monument grew.  On the nation's centennial in 1876, Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the project.  The monument opened to the public in 1888.


The use of the Monument grounds would set a precedent for later military use of the Mall during wartime exigencies. During the Second World War, the Federal Government erected "temporary" office buildings in the vicinity of the Washington Monument grounds to serve the growing wartime government workforce.




                                                                                                                                           
Cattle can be seen grazing on the Washington Monument grounds just west of 14th Street in this 1865 photograph lookin gin the direction of the White House and Treasury.
Harpers Weekly illustration showing an artillery unit drilling on the Washington Monument grounds.
A wartime illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicts the use of the grounds of the unfinished Washington Monument as a cattle depot. The poet Walt Whitman recalled once seeing nearly 10,000 cattle on the grounds.
Officers of the U.S. Treasury Battalion; uncompleted Washington Monument in left background, Circa April 1865 (Courtesy Library of Congress)



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