Civil War researcher takes on a monumental project

Special to the Sunday News
June 22. 2013 2:30AM

New Hampshire's only equestrian statue of a Civil War subject, Maj. General Fitz-John Porter of Portsmouth, was dedicated in 1906. It stands in Portsmouth's Haven Park. (GEORGE MORRISON)

George Morrison was in the Concord village of Penacook three years ago when he took a photograph of a Civil War monument that included a puzzling inscription: "Shiloh (6./7.April 1862)."

That was too early in the war for New Hampshire troops to have reached Shiloh, in western Tennessee, thought Morrison, a retired Concord High School history teacher.

So the next day, he called the New Hampshire Historical Society to inquire about the monument, assuming the organization would have comprehensive information on the state's war monuments. To his surprise, it did not.

War monuments were privately funded, the Historical Society's librarian explained, so the state never compiled a list of them.

Further inquiries turned up partial lists compiled by private citizens, but nothing complete. His curiosity only heightened by the lack of information, Morrison decided to venture out from his Bow home to see what other area memorials were dedicated to those who served in the Civil War.

"I got out a road map, circled towns, and saddled the Mule," he said in a recent email interview, referring to his preferred mode of transportation, his motorcycle. "I thought, 'Maybe I'll find one today,' but gave no consideration into turning this into a 'project.'"

Yet that's exactly what his search became: a project of photographing and cataloging memorials and monuments dedicated to New Hampshire Civil War veterans, in and outside the state, from the 1860s through the 1930s.

Sharing his work

The project also has become a New Hampshire Humanities Council lecture series: "Vanished Veterans: NH's Civil War Monuments and Memorials." with Morrison presenting his findings and photos at appearances around the state beginning in Franklin on July 4.

Sharon Wood, a member of the board of trustees for The Claremont Historical Museum, said her organization is especially excited to have Morrison speak because he will be highlighting the Civil War monument in Claremont.

"This has a local connection for us, right here," she said. "You know it's not just something that was happening on battlefields in the South or at Gettysburg, the only battle in the north. These were our Claremont boys. We want to educate the public that some of the ancestors of the people who live in town right now were fighting in that war."

According to Morrison, New Hampshire towns did not erect monuments before the Civil War, but the toll of the terrible conflict that pitted brother against brother and tore the country in two was too devastating not to commemorate.

Over the years, the meaning behind many of those commemorations became forgotten or lost or simply overlooked. Morrison's work is a restoration project of sorts, giving the commemorations fresh life.

Hidden treasures

The nature of that work changed from hobby to history, Morrison said, when he began sharing it with Civil War buffs. They encouraged him to discover - and record - more, so he became "more systematic" and began recording the names inscribed on each monument.

Ten months into the project, he thought he was just about finished, but then he began cataloguing grave and monument markers distributed by the GAR - or Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of Union Army veterans founded after the Civil War - and that extended his work by another year.

Early on, visiting monuments was easy because Morrison knew where most of the objects he sought were located. Subsequent searches for monuments he'd heard or read about proved more difficult.

"Locating the 1880 obelisk inscribed, 'The Town of Gilford to Her Fallen Heroes' proved challenging," he said, "for the town's border having been shifted (after the dedication of the monument), I hadn't thought to look in Laconia."

Some days, he's logged more than 300 miles looking for obscure treasures.

"Satellite map photography came in very handy, although overgrown trees can be problematic," Morrison said. "One learns to search beyond city parks and town greens, libraries and town halls onto dirt roads and in 19th century cemeteries."

The more challenging the search and the more surprising the find, he added, the greater the satisfaction.

"It was always a quiet moment of reward when finding another," he said. Unique creationsPart of what has made his project so interesting, Morrison said, is the creativity behind the monuments.

"The variations in style, sometimes broad, make each unique," he said.

The state's largest and most elaborate Civil War monument, he noted, is in Manchester's Veterans Memorial Park. It includes a pillar topped by a granite statue and wrapped at its base by a bronze bas-relief, all surrounded by the bronze figures of four Union soldiers.

A handful of the New Hampshire's bronze monuments, Morrison said, were created by Bohemian sculptor Caspar Buberl, who had arrived in America just before the war and later produced work that can be found in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

"Manchester's was the first of the large-scale civic monuments, dedicated in 1878," Morrison said of the one located in Veterans Park. "Portsmouth and Nashua would follow a decade later."

Beyond the border

Morrison is still researching Civil War monuments in New Hampshire, as well as out-of-state monuments dedicated to Union soldiers from the Granite State, including one in Mississippi.

The next step in the project, he hopes, is to turn it into a book.

"The Civil War has an immense literature, but monumental architecture is definitely a niche market," he said. "I'd like to find a friendly publisher to get this onto paper."

As for the "Shiloh" inscription on the monument in Penacook, Morrison still doesn't have an answer. The project continues.

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