Sunday, January 15, 2017

Photo of the Day: Lafayette McLaws Bust, Forsyth Park, Savannah, GA

If you want to experience the urban South at its most beautiful, you will want to take at least a stroll—and probably more—in Forsyth Park in Savannah. If you want to understand not merely the fierce persistence of the Civil War in the South, but its centrality in the region’s memories and myths, you’ll want to stop at Forsyth Park, too.

Along the park’s north-south axis towers the Confederate Monument to the city’s war dead. On one side of the monument is a bust dedicated to the memory of Col. Francis Bartow, who lost his life at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861. On the other is a similar bust paying tribute to Major Gen. Lafayette McLaws, a divisional commander of mixed achievement during the war—and one who, after Appomattox, found as much esteem as he would ever achieve by contributing to the South’s ongoing narrative of sacrifice. I took the photo seen here in November 2014, when I visited the park.

Graduating in the West Point class of 1842 at 48th out of 56, McLaws—born on this date in 1821—confirmed during the Civil War that he was a soldier of limited ability, best used when he could be carefully monitored. Robert E. Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, described McLaws as a “professional soldier, careful of details and not lacking in soldierly qualities, but there was nothing daring, brilliant or aggressive in his character.”

Acquitting himself reasonably well in the Battle of the Seven Days and Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, he proved more dilatory at Chancellorsville and, out west, at James Longstreet’s Knoxville campaign. His performance in the latter role led Longstreet, a classmate years before, to remove him from command, resulting in a court martial for McLaws. (Although McLaws came to Longstreet’s defense when the corps commander became a scapegoat for Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, McLaws understandably still appears not to have completely forgiven his former chief for his treatment of him during the war.)

In the postwar period, McLaws served as an insurance agent, internal revenue collector, and postmaster. But his military service remained closest to his heart, so he became involved with the Confederate Veterans Association of Savannah. He died in Savannah in 1897 and was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery. 

It is hard to imagine this bust being anywhere else but where it is now. But it, along with the Barstow sculpture, had originally been placed in Chippewa Square.   

The busts, unveiled in 1902, were created by George Julian Zolnay (1863-1949), who had developed a reputation as “the Sculptor of the Confederacy” with monuments to Confederate spy Sam Davis and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Eight years later,  when the Savannah city council decided to make room in Chippewa Square for a memorial to the founder of the colony of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, they voted to move the McLaws and Barstow busts to Forsyth Park, where they have remained since.

These are the facts, in brief, of McLaws' life and his bust in Forsyth Park. But that cannot begin to summon the emotions that swirled around his life and his cause, even up to the present day. How much those emotions can be roiled was seen over the weekend,in the controversy over Lee-Jackson Day in another lovely, if smaller, Southern town, Lexington, VA. 

For the past decade, Lexington had been the site of a parade on Lee-Jackson Day celebrating Confederate heritage. This year, however, a group called the Community Anti-racism Education Initiative reserved a permit first. Hard feelings have developed. I am afraid we are going to see more of this kind of thing beginning January 20.

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