Friday, February 22, 2013

Gettysburg's granite guardians: Dedicated monument team preserves the past

Across our nation’s battlefields, monuments serve as tributes that withstand the test of time.

Few of us realize these valiant sentinels do not stand alone.

11th Mass. monument before damage
At Gettysburg National Military Park, caring for 1,200 monuments, markers and tablets and 410 artillery pieces requires a small, but dedicated, team of specialists.

“We are preserving America’s history and there needs to be a high quality of work,” said Lucas Flickinger, supervisor of the monument preservation branch at the battlefield.

Some visitors may see monuments as helpful landmarks during their driving tour of the hallowed ground. They may admire the artistry behind likenesses of soldiers locked in mortal combat or squint at tablets describing that particular stage of the great battle of July 1863.

Others may have a personal connection to the storied battlefield – a forebearer fought there.

Plaster cast (background)
 “If you are touching the monument, you are touching your ancestor directly because they were here,” said Flickinger.

 Among the park’s most popular monuments are the colossal Pennsylvania State Memorial on Hancock Avenue and the Virginia Monument, topped by a statue of a mounted Robert E. Lee looking on at the futile Pickett’s Charge.

 “The interesting thing I find about this battlefield is the monuments were erected by the veterans. It’s not that you and I put it up to our great-grandfather,” Flickinger told the Picket this week. “They fought the battle and put in their time and effort to putting up this monument … It is a testament to that generation they came back and had strong feelings about what they did.”

Flickinger, whose team counters the effects of water, falling trees, lightning and occasional errant vehicles and vandalism, says the 11th Massachusetts Infantry monument near Emmitsburg Road is one of his favorites (top four photos).

Finished arm (NPS photos)
For starters, it’s a bit unusual.

Rather than depicting a full figure, the monument depicts an upraised arm, poised to bring a sword down. “I think it is a very powerful symbol of resolve,” said Flickinger, 37, a native of Carlisle, Pa.

The monument was one of three vandalized overnight in February 2006. Despite a $30,000 reward, no arrests or convictions have been made. Two of the monuments have been repaired.

The park recently received the 11th Massachusetts finished granite arm it ordered after a National Park Service specialist made a model.

As he got started, Brian Griffin studied historic photos – including those by Willliam H. Tipton -- and fragments of the arm, fingers and sword.

“Brian … got a perspective of distances, lengths and sizes,” said Flickinger. “It was pretty painstaking. There were two or three weeks of scaling from the photos.”

Brian Griffin at work on 11th Mass. model
Griffin spent about three months on the clay modeling and made a plaster cast that was sent to Granite Industries of Vermont.

After the sword and hand guard are completed, the feature will be returned to its park setting, sometime before Memorial Day.

The other two vandalized monuments were of the 4th New York Artillery (Smith's Battery) and the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry. Griffin helped make a new head for an artilleryman in the 4th New York setting. The vandal or vandals had dragged the monument 150 feet and removed the head.

While relatively rare, vandalism has its cost.

“It adds to the workload of what we are doing and (results from) someone ignorant of the history of the country, degrading that,” said Flickinger, who has been at Gettysburg since December 2010. “We put a lot of time and energy to make sure it’s right.”

Flickinger has three permanent staff members and five seasonal workers. About half of the work is on cannons and carriages, the other on monuments.

Ninety-eight percent of the cannon tubes at the park are Civil War-era.

In the mid-1990s, Flickinger’s predecessor began a long-term cannon restoration program, in which lead paint was removed. Cast-iron carriages are being repaired due to rust and water damage.

So far, 306 pieces have been overhauled. “It’s a huge job,” said Flickinger. “We are fixing any structural defects, cracks and cosmetic fixes. It takes one of my guys a month to complete the repairs on one carriage.”

Iron cannon tubes are prone to rust. “Once we have them sandblasted and a couple coats of painted, they are pretty much in a preserved state at that point.”

The vast majority of the Gettysburg’s monuments are made of granite, with bronze elements.

“Veterans quickly found marble and sandstone were not preferred materials,” said Flickinger. “They deteriorated and stained more easily.”

Griffin works on 4th New York monument
The biggest threat to the granite monuments is water, which can seep into joints between base stones and other features.

There’s also regular cleaning, maintenance and work on fences, such as those around the famous Copse of Trees. The fences were damaged twice by falling trees.

The list of preservation projects is long.

“You are trying to preserve what is here,” said Flickinger.” If I tried … to get ahead, this job would drive me crazy, quite honestly.”

The work takes time and money, which is limited. “It is very easy with a large collection for things to fall off and not get done,” said Flickinger. “I am trying to get 1,000 things moving ahead at the same time.”

Future projects include the Eternal Light Peace Memorial and a bronze soldier figure on the 121st New York monument, damaged by a tree.

Flickinger said he looks for employees with a strong work ethic, an attention to detail and a willingness to learn. 

Maintenance includes artillery (NPS)
Their efforts are especially on display this year for the 150th anniversary of the three-day battle. Throngs of visitors are coming to Pennsylvania.

“It means a lot of people (will be) here looking at how we as stewards have been taking care of the public collection of art,” said Flickinger, who received a bachelor’s degree in historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

And while the park staff is excited about the anniversary, there will be little rest after the commemoration.

“Preservation of the park is not going to stop after July 3 of this year,” said Flickinger.

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