Monday, September 28, 2015

New Mississippi monument at Shiloh focuses on courage of soldiers, not their cause

Clay sculpture figures (Courtesy Kim Sessums)

Having emerged from the confounding thicket and swampy bottoms below Shiloh Church, the men of Brig. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s brigade began their assault on Union camps.

One of Cleburne’s units, the 6th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, moved upon the 53rd Ohio, which had higher ground and was supported by artillery.

What happened next on Rea Field earned the Mississippians the nickname, “The Bloody Sixth.”

Murderous fire caused a staggering 70 percent casualty rate – 300 of 425 men went down. Such was the carnage on April 6, 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh that Cleburne’s brigade almost ceased to exist.

The valor of the 6th and other Mississippians who fought at the site in south-central Tennessee is captured in a new battlefield monument that will be dedicated at 11 a.m. CT on Oct. 10.

The day will have extra significance because Mississippi was the only Southern state that had a significant number of troops – nine infantry regiments, seven artillery batteries and two cavalry detachments – at Shiloh not to have a monument.

2012 tour of Rea Field (NPS photo)

Dr. J. Kim Sessums of Brookhaven, Ms., has created a bronze and granite work that will rise nearly 25 feet above Rea Field. While the monument will be a memorial to all Mississippi troops, it will portray a moment that will conjure the 6th’s determined, but futile assaults on the enemy.

A color bearer has been hit. “He is recoiling back, going backwards trying to hold on to the flag,” Sessums recently told the Picket. Two comrades come to his aid, determined to hold the flag aloft.

For Mississippi, which sent troops to Shiloh from Corinth, about 30 miles away, Oct. 10 will be the culmination of a stop-and-start effort. There was an effort about 100 years ago, but a large United Daughters of the Confederacy monument erected in 1917 may have slowed the cause.

Monuments are expensive. The Legislature two years ago appropriated $250,000 and another $150,000 was raised privately.

“It’s been a long time coming. I grew up coming to this park as a kid,” said Timothy Arnold, a park ranger at Shiloh National Military Park. “Mississippi re-enactors and organizations have been talking about it for a long time.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kimble Johnson, a member of the Mississippi Veterans Monument Commission, said people are surprised to learn there had not been a monument at Shiloh.

“It’s fantastic," Johnson said of the addition. "It is long overdue, obviously."

Each turned its own way

It’s not that the involvement of Mississippi troops has not been told at Shiloh. They are mentioned in many of the 600 iron tablets.

The two-day battle was the largest at that time in the western theater; the Confederate offensive, while it had successes, was finally stopped by a fierce Federal resistance. The Southerners have to leave the field, resulting in a Union victory. Casualties were staggering: 13,000 Federal troops, 10,700 Confederates.

Dr. Kim Sessums
Over the years, states began paying for and erecting monuments at Shiloh. Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Kentucky are among those represented. The most recent was Tennessee’s in 2005.

While years in the planning and making, the dedication of the Mississippi monument may not be coming at the most fortuitous time. 

The June church shooting in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by a young man who had photos of himself with a Confederate battle flag, has raised a debate across the South about what to do with existing Confederate memorials, paintings and monuments. While advocates say it represents Southern heritage, others say the flag is offensive and has been used by some as a racist symbol.

The flag on the new monument at Shiloh is not a battle flag -- it is a Hardee pattern flag used by the unit.

Sessums, who won a national competition sponsored by the state’s monuments commission, is aware of the controversy about Confederate symbols.

“I am not taking sides” on the Civil War cause, said Sessums, who is an OB/GYN physician in Brookhaven. “I am trying to honor the memory of these guys.” The sculptor previously created the African-American Monument at Vicksburg National Military Park, also in Mississippi.

“It seems to me there was plenty of personal blame to go around for how did we come to this point in our nation. This division.” The monument will include a passage in Isaiah 53:6. “Each of us has turned to our own way.”

Johnson said he was not concerned about the timing.

“They (the soldiers) did everything their country asked them to do and they should be recognized. A lot of the Union vets would agree. They can separate the cause from soldiers."

Randy Reeves, chairman of the monument commission, said the event and long-planned monument are not part of the battle flag controversy. “This is not what it is about,” he said. “We need to honor the sacrifice they made as Mississippians.”

Sessum's son, Jake, works on clay of cartridge box

In an essay he sent to the monument commission, Sessums said other monuments may tell the broader story of the war. "My goal with this monument, in spite of the complicated and disturbing history of the War itself ... (is) to give the man of the ranks his rightful measure of consideration."

The memorial, he wrote, is "yet another reminder that 'these dead' have not died in vain and that 'this Nation' has not perished."

Dale Wilkerson, superintendent at Shiloh, said, “The story of the Civil War is the story of how America got to where it is today.” He cites the fighting at Shiloh, which had more casualties that all the previous U.S. wars.

“People had thought war was a glorious thing. Every generation, we forget war is horrible,” said Wilkerson. After Shiloh, both sides realized the war would not be over by Christmas and it would be a bloody affair.

According to TV station WBBJ, Shiloh made some changes over the summer because of a directive from the National Park Service. It pulled three items from the gift shop -- a Confederate battle flag, a set of dog tags and a set of coasters -- because they only had a Confederate flag displayed on them. Memorabilia is available as long as the image also has an American flag.

Questions have been raised on social media about whether battle and other flags will be allowed at the dedication.

“We are asking people to keep items brought into the event area small in order to provide for a safe area and not to obstruct the view of others present,” said Wilkerson. “Handheld flags are fine, and we ask folks to respect the dignity of the ceremony.

Attendees will not be prohibited from bringing a hand-held flag of their choice, Wilkerson said, adding the battle flag was not present at the battle.

The Mississippi state banner includes a battle flag in one corner. 

'It is going to be beautiful'

Dedication site, click to enlarge. (NPS)

The public dedication and donation of the monument to the National Park Service will include speeches and a 21-gun salute. 

Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts will unveil the monument and members of the 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team will serve as the color guard and rifle team. The Mississippi National Guard unit traces its history to before and during the Civil War, said Reeves.

The ceremony will be solemn, said Reeves. "I am proud to be a small part of honoring Mississippians."

Wilkerson said the park’s 4,000 acres have an appropriate number of markers and monuments to tell the story. “It is not crowded by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. 

“Visitors can contemplate without saying ‘Here is one, here is one, here is another.’”

Shiloh’s two most popular monuments may be the 75-foot-tall Iowa memorial near the visitor center and the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s work, known as the Confederate Monument. Wilkerson expects the Mississippi memorial will garner a lot of interest.

“It is a large monument. It is going to be beautiful. It will be one of the featured spots people will go to,” the superintendent said.

Johnson said state chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been instrumental in the project. A representative of the state United Daughters of the Confederacy will be on the dais, also.

Sessums, who has traveled twice to the battlefield, said a living historian with a degree in archaeology helped ensure his figurative work would be realistic. “We talked about stitching, cartridge boxes and backpacks.”

Although the three figures are anonymous, it’s known that several men of the 6th who carried the flag were shot down. Regimental commander Lt. Col. John Thornton was severely wounded in the thigh after he grabbed the flag.

Larry Lugar (center) during mold-making process (J.K. Sessums)

Sessums also read material and letters in the Mississippi archives. “These are real figures.”

The soldiers he created for posterity are 8 and a half feet tall. The white granite is from Coldspring in Minnesota and the 4,500-pound bronze casting was done by Larry Lugar in Eads, Tenn. All of the Mississippi units that participated will be listed.

“I think it will be a moving piece,” said Sessums.

His subjects had their bloody baptism of fire on that morning at Shiloh. “They are moving forward. It is trying to capture the heroism and courage and steadfastness,” said the artist.

“This is the place where history happened. At Rea Field, they have kept it open. You can imagine in your mind … the chaos that was going on right there before you.”

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