The Florida Monument at Gettysburg: The Complicated Legacies of the Civil War

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Monuments mean many things to many people. To some, they represent a sacred cause or hallowed ground. To others, reminders of lives lost in past conflicts. To others still, they stand as reminders of past injustices and modern day struggles. All of those meanings can be found in the many monuments of Gettysburg National Military Park, which today is home to over 1,300 monuments, markers, statues, tablets, and plaques commemorating the terrible fighting that took place on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. It is one of the largest collections of outdoor art and sculpture in the world.

Today, our nation once again finds itself debating the meaning and legacies of the Civil War and questioning the value and messages of monuments to Confederates who fought in that war. Every day at Gettysburg,  National Park Service uses the battlefield and its many monuments to understand and convey those legacies  to visitors from all across the world. In these discussions, it is important to remember that monuments to the past not only reflect the past itself, but they also reflect the times in which they were dedicated. They can serve multiple purposes, reminding us of past battles, of lives lost, and of deeper meanings and struggles, often all at the same time.

One monument particularly illustrative of this is the Florida Monument, which sits along West Confederate Avenue on Seminary Ridge. Florida only had three regiments at Gettysburg—the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Florida, led by Colonel David Lang. On July 2, Lang’s men took part in a massive Confederate assault on Cemetery Ridge, coming close to severing the Federal line. Though Florida had the third fewest soldiers at Gettysburg of any Confederate state, it suffered the highest percentage of loss. 455 of its 740 men were casualties, a 62% casualty rate. Because of the small number of regiments at the battle, Florida’s role at Gettysburg is often forgotten or overlooked.

Fast forward 96 years. In 1959, Florida attorney Paul Danahy was touring the Gettysburg battlefield and taking in the sights. He noticed that, while several Southern states were represented with memorials, Florida was not among them. Upon returning home and doing research on the matter, Danahy discovered that the state had allocated $15,000 in 1907 to place a monument to Florida troops at Chickamauga, but had never taken steps to erect a memorial at Gettysburg. Danahy was not the only one curious over the matter. The same year he visited Gettysburg, the state of Florida started a Civil War Centennial committee, which had among its goals placing a monument to Florida troops at Gettysburg. The committee never moved ahead on the matter, and for several years, it seemed as though the idea had faded.

In April 1963, however,  still impacted by his visit to Gettysburg, Danahy wrote to the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Civil War Centennial Commission, lobbying for a Florida monument to be placed at Gettysburg. At that time, Texas and South Carolina were in the process of placing their own memorials, and Danahy wanted the Florida monument to be approved, finished, and placed that same summer, meaning the entire process had to take place in less than three months.

Having a legislative background in Florida, Danahy worked with several state representatives to have $20,000 dollars designated for a Florida monument at Gettysburg. With help from Florida legislators and from Congress, the National Park Service at Gettysburg approved of the plans, and within a few months, a monument to Florida had been constructed at Gettysburg. Its dedication was set for July 3, 1963, at 5:30 p.m.

1963 was an important year in American history. The Cold War was in full force. In October 1962 the United States had come to the brink of nuclear war with the U.S.S.R.

during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy was dealing with threats from communism abroad and racism and social unrest at home. The Civil Rights movement was gaining steam and struggling to make real the promises of freedom and equal citizenship that emerged at the end of the American Civil War, which had gone unfulfilled for a century. That year saw the death of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Two months before the centennial exercises at Gettysburg, the city of Birmingham, Alabama erupted into rioting and violence after racially motivated bombings had targeted black leaders in the community. Television viewers across the country witnessed as police dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on peaceful demonstrators. These history altering events were occurring simultaneously with the nation’s commemoration of the Civil War centennial. Americans in 1963 could look back to the events of 100 years earlier to see how much, or how little, the country had changed.

Birmingham Riots

Florida was a state deeply impacted by these events. It was caught on the front lines of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and with a large immigrant population, worries over the spread of communism were especially acute. Cold War concerns were mixed in with Florida’s struggle to deal with the social changes being brought by the struggle for Civil Rights. Altogether, Florida and its people had a unique perspective on the changing country in 1963, and the dedication of its memorial at Gettysburg put these tensions and issues on full display.

On July 3, 1963, numerous dignitaries and commissioners from Florida were present to dedicate Gettysburg’s newest monument. Paul Danahy was there to oversee much of the ceremony, introducing speakers and providing his own remarks. Representatives were there from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the National Park Service, the Florida Civil War Centennial Commission, as well as from other former Confederate states. The invocation was given by Father Vincent Crawford, from the Saint Leo Abby in Dade City, Florida. In his remarks, Crawford suggested that the Confederate leaders of 1863 could serve as an inspiration of leadership for the country’s challenges in 1963. Surely, Crawford’s suggestion rang false for those who still sought equal rights 100 years after Gettysburg.

Following the invocation and remarks by Danahy, the dedicatory address was delivered by Congressman Sam Gibbons. A veteran of World War Two, Gibbons was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. On the night of June 5, 1944, he was one of thousands who jumped into Normandy, starting the D-Day invasion of France. Gibbons was a Captain at the time, and performed heroically during the fighting in Normandy. After the war he attended law school, served in Florida politics and went on to serve 17 terms in Congress,

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Congressman Sam Gibbon

eventually becoming the Chairman of the Ways and Means committee. According to the New York Times, President Lyndon Johnson once remarked to Gibbons, “You vote Northern and talk Southern,” referring to his ability to balance his conservative district in Florida with the initiatives of the Democratic Party.

 

Gibbons’s background as an American veteran—speaking on the meaning of a war fought 80 years before his own combat experience—as well as an elected representative from a former Confederate state gave him a unique voice in framing the importance of Gettysburg as the country dealt with the aftermath of the war 100 years after the battle.

“Exactly 100 years ago at this very hour, and at this very place, history recorded the turning point in the bloodiest war that was ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. In this bitter struggle, our nation found a part of the meaning of freedom. We must not lose it now in hate, or in violence, or in dishonor. The burden for the fight for freedom now rests on us who are here. As responsible Americans working for better human relations we abhor the use on our citizens of the snarling police dog, the fire hose, the electrically-charged cattle prodding stick; and on the other hand we find no place in America for the agitating opportunist who for his own monetary or political gain pits one race against another and sometimes we find sadly today urging mob violence. As responsible Americans working for freedom for others throughout this troubled world, it is our duty to practice freedom and equality here in America.

“In our country, freedom and equality will be brought about by understanding honestly practiced; education earnestly pursued; and opportunity freely given without discrimination. Our disagreements can no longer be settled by armed conflict as we settled them here a hundred years ago. Our racial conflicts must be removed from the streets and our differences resolved in the true American way in our courts, in our legislative bodies, and at the ballot box. If we fail—and we will fail if leadership passes to the extremist—then man’s best chance for freedom and equality under law will have been totally eclipsed. Those who died here and on other American battlefields will then have died in vain.

“The effects of the battle that we mark now with this ceremony were largely confined to this country. But such is not the case today; for now America’s racial conflicts have immediate worldwide significance. We cannot hope to win men’s minds in the battle with communism if America becomes a land in which freedom, equality and opportunity are reserved only for the white man. Much progress has been made in human relations in this last 100 years. Let us resolve to preserve that progress and to strengthen it, not wreck it.”

Gibbons’s remarks placed the struggle for freedom of the Civil War in the context of the Cold War and Civil Rights Era as few other speeches at Gettysburg have ever done. While there were elements of the speech that remind us that Gibbons was a congressman from Florida dedicating a monument to Confederates in 1963—referring to racial agitators and extremists taking to the streets—he also spoke in ways that were entirely anathema to the founding principles of the Confederacy, and even to the declaration of secession from his own state of Florida in 1861. When Florida left the Union in early 1861, it did so declaring that threats against the survival and spread of slavery were its primary motivators.

Gibbons, who himself fought to advance freedom and defeat tyranny in Europe in 1944 and 1945, stood upon the hallowed ground of Gettysburg and highlighted the need to ensure freedom and equality for all races at home in order to meet the threat of communism abroad. He mentioned the recent unrest in Birmingham, where police dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on protesters who asked for nothing more than basic equality, reminding us even more of the context in which this monument—as well as those to several other Confederate states—were dedicated. By calling for freedom for blacks and whites alike at Gettysburg 100 years after the war, Gibbons’s speech reminds us that the Florida monument tells a complex story. Yes, Florida was a Confederate state that was dedicated to slavery, but 100 years later, when a monument was erected in its honor, it was done so in part to address the deeper meaning of the war, showing a nation still unsure of itself on matters of race and equality.

In addition to the speeches that day, language on the Florida monument itself it quite interesting. It too attempts to use the examples of the past to strengthen the nation in the present and the future.

Like all Floridians who participated in the Civil War, they fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed. By their noble example of bravery and endurance, they enable us to meet with confidence any sacrifice which confronts us as Americans.

Here, the complexities of the Florida monument are on full display. It calls for honoring those who, in the past, fought for restricting freedom, while at its dedication, Congressman Sam Gibbons called for securing freedom and expanding civil rights in the face of communist threats. Because of this, the Florida monument is an example of just how complicated the legacies of the Civil War are. The nation has always grappled with remembering its past while trying to improve in the present and the future.

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So what lessons can we draw from the story of the Florida monument and its dedication? Perhaps we can learn that all monuments are not created equal or alike, and that they reflect the times in which they were dedicated. Perhaps we can see that these monuments are just as complex as the history they represent. The story of the Florida monument is complicated. It doesn’t represent a clean past, but as Congressman Gibbons’s speech shows, it does provide an example of using the past to inform the present, which perhaps is a lesson we can draw from all monuments to the Civil War.

As far as Paul Danahy was concerned, he saw in the monument an opportunity to emphasize reconciliation and reunion. In a letter to park historian Harry Pfanz several weeks after the monument dedication ceremony, Danahy noted that his inspiration for the monument was drawn, in part, from his own ancestor, who fought for the Union at the battle. “It may be somewhat symbolical of a nation united,” Danahy wrote, “that a descendant of Union men who has been a 15 year resident of Florida should have assisted in finally effecting a tribute from the state of Florida to its soldiers who served at Gettysburg, and, indeed, as the inscription on the monument, which I drafted, states, “to all Floridians participating in the Civil War.”

Just two days before the Florida monument dedication, Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania spoke on the 100th anniversary of the battle as well. Scranton noted that, while this nation is not perfect—something we are reminded of by all of the markers and monuments at Gettysburg—the sacrifices and stories of the past are far from fruitless. As Scranton said, “Those who fell on this battlefield have not died in vain because ou nation today is great enough to keep trying.

Ranger Daniel Vermilya,
Gettysburg National Military Park

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5 Responses to The Florida Monument at Gettysburg: The Complicated Legacies of the Civil War

  1. David Sherman says:

    Fantastic article. A story that many of us never knew. Love the conclusions
    Bravo!

  2. Susan Hankinson says:

    Thank you for this interesting lesson in history.

  3. Paul Bailey LBG#241 says:

    Well done! Dan
    I will be discussing the Florida Brigade and monument at Foundation Fall Muster on October 7th. I am happy to share notes.

  4. A refreshing article. Thank you for your thoughtful perspective — and for providing a historical framework for discussion.

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