African Americans on the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, Ohio


Cuyahoga County Soldiers' and Sailors Monument postcard copy
The Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument, in downtown Cleveland, Ohio;  Detroit Photographic Co. postcard, Created/Published: circa 1900.
Image Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-18120

The Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument, a Civil War memorial in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, is somewhat unique: it presents images of white and black men in the Union military. That is not common among Civil War monuments and memorials, which usually depict white service men or black service men, but not both. This is enabled in part due to the huge size and scope of the monument, which allows space for more content than other, smaller constructions.

The very informative Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument website describes the monument, which was completed in 1894:

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument commemorates the American Civil War; it consists of a 125′ column surrounded at its base by a Memorial Room and esplanade. The column, topped with a statue of the Goddess of Freedom, defended by the Shield of Liberty, signifies the essence of the Nation for which Cuyahoga County veterans were willing to and did give their lives. Four bronze groupings on the esplanade depict, in battle scenes, the Navy, Artillery, Infantry and Cavalry.

Inside the Memorial Room are four bronze relief sculptures: Women’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Aid Society, Beginning of the War in Ohio, Emancipation of the Slaves and End of the War at City Point, Va., as well as busts of Gen. James Barnett and Architect/ Sculptor Levi T. Scofield, together with 6 officers, who were either killed in action, or died of disease or their wounds.

The Memorial Room of the monument includes this bronze relief sculpture:

Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
A section of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH  A black soldier takes an oath of allegiance to the United States; Abraham Lincoln offers him freedom and a rifle.
Image Source: © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

William H. Gleason, in his History of Cuyahoga County soldiers’ and sailors’ monument, describes this sculpture:

Upon entering the building from Superior Street, the visitor is struck with an effective group of life-size figures in a cast bronze panel, seven by ten feet, representing the Emancipation of the Slave. The central figure in full relief is Abraham Lincoln, his right hand extended holding the shackles that have been taken from the bondsman kneeling at his feet, while with the left he hands him the gun and accoutrements. This feature explains more clearly the law which authorized Lincoln to issue the proclamation, and also required the Government to employ the slave as a soldier. On the right hand of the President stand Salmon P. Chase and John Sherman, the financial men of the war period, and on the left are Ben. Wade and Joshua R. Giddings, who were Lincoln’s main stays in the anti-slavery movements.

In the background, in bas-relief, are represented the Army and the Navy. Overhead is the closing paragraph of the proclamation, written by Chase and adopted by Lincoln, “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

Although Abraham Lincoln is clearly a “central figure” in this piece, the same can be said for the black man in front of him. The black man is on one knee with his right hand up: he is taking an “oath on bended knee,” a gesture that signifies his loyalty and service to his new country. In the piece he is being given a gun; this represents not just a weapon, but empowerment. The message is unmistakeable: this man is no longer a slave, but a soldier who will fight for his nation, and for freedom.

This is one of the monument’s exterior sculptures:

Mortar Practice Grouping Soldiers sailors Monument
A section of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH  A group of sailors prepare a mortar shell for firing.
Image Source: Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument website.

This is one of four “groupings” of military men that are depicted on the  monument. Per the History of Cuyahoga County soldiers’ and sailors’ monument,

The Navy group, “Mortar Practice,” represents a scene near Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River, where an officer and five men are loading a mortar, preparatory to shelling the intrenchments.

It is open to speculation as to why the black man in the sculpture is shirtless. It might be done to represent that he is a former slave, who is now putting his body and labor at work for the Union cause. In any event, his image projects a strength and determination that rivals, or even exceeds, his fellow sailors. Note that monuments portraying African American sailors are quite rare (monuments featuring Civil War military men overwhelming depict soldiers, not sailors).

The monument is located in downtown Cleveland’s Public Square. The architect and sculptor was Levi T. Scofield.

One critique I have of this monument is that its focus on emancipation might lead some to think that all black enlistees into the Union military were slaves; that thinking is incorrect. The African American men from Cuyahoga County who served in the Union army were for free blacks; they would not have needed to remove shackles to serve in the Union army. Just over 5,000 African Americans enlisted in the army in Ohio. A regiment of black Ohioans, the 5th United States Colored Infantry Regiment, is one of the most decorated African American army units of the Civil War. More information about the 5th Regiment is here and here.

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