Featured in Vol.4 Issue 1 | The Spring 2015 Edition
Narrative is an important means by which to gain access
to the meanings of the obelisk.
—Grant Parker, Stanford University
It needled the sky like a stone rocket aimed for the clouds. As I gazed heavenward along the massive granite shaft, the world seemed to revolve around the Groton Battle Monument as if it were a giant axel. I suddenly felt the uneasy lightness of vertigo.
The structure looms 135 feet above a Groton, Connecticut hilltop it shares with Fort Griswold, a star-shaped Revolutionary War fortification, now a state park, high above the broad Thames River and the City of New London on the opposite shore. A tapered, rectangular pillar with a pyramidal cap, known as an obelisk, it’s the most prominent object visible from nearby Interstate 95.
The monument towers over everything around it, seemingly ruling the countryside. Though it’s solid, obvious and familiar, I imagined something intangible, hidden and unusual. Why, I wondered, was a war to end the tyranny of hereditary autocratic rule and establish a republic with democratic institutions commemorated by an obelisk, a monument of ancient Egypt, a symbol of pharaonic power? Finally, after passing it hundreds of times, my curiosity got the better of me one day and I detoured from my travels, finding myself dwarfed and awed at its base.
I hadn’t planned more than a quick stop and a snapshot, but the heavy, elaborately crafted bronze door was open. I looked into the dimly lit interior where the first few of 166 narrow, winding stone steps beckoned. My footfalls echoed slightly on the twisting stairway in the cramped interior. Quickly out of breath, I thought of turning back, but once started I felt impelled upward, perhaps by the challenge of the climb or the Spartan coiled beauty of this ersatz chambered nautilus.
Light and space exploded from the windows at the observation deck on top. Below me was the angular geometry of the fort’s elaborate earthworks, covered in grass and arrayed as clearly as on a map. A few tourists in T-shirts and shorts wandered through the quiet, pastoral site where 165 Americans held off 850 British troops for about forty-five minutes in September 1781. With the enemy finally inside the walls, American commander Colonel William Ledyard ordered a cease fire. “Who commands this fort?” asked the ranking British officer as Ledyard walked into the open. “I did, sir, but you do now,” came the ironic Yankee reply. In one of the war’s most murderous moments, Ledyard handed his sword to the victor, hilt first, in conformance with the ceremony of surrender. He was then fatally stabbed with his own weapon, beginning a slaughter of unarmed Americans. It’s said that only six or eight defenders died in the actual battle, but by the time the Redcoats withdrew, eighty-eight Americans were dead and another thirty-five wounded.
To the east I saw rolling green hills punctuated by occasional buildings and, just down river, the humongous metal sheds and tall cranes of submarine builder General Dynamics Electric Boat. Across the river were the towers and spires of New London with its waterfront of pilings and piers. On the same day as the battle at Fort Griswold, British troops commanded by American turncoat Benedict Arnold burned the city, a treachery still remembered.
Quickly descending the stairs, I hurried to the squat fieldstone museum building next door, fired up and ready to burst with my question about obelisks. The docent was full of facts about the battle, Benedict Arnold, the fort’s design, and the eclectic collection of artifacts displayed inside, including Ledyard’s sword. But about the obelisk design? “Good question,” he said with a shrug. With my curiosity now in overdrive, I decided to do a little investigating.
Obelisks have been popular monuments for almost 4,000 years. Egyptian pharaohs constructed them in pairs on either side of temple entrances as offerings to the sun god. Ancient obelisks were monoliths, fabricated out of a single piece of red, granite-like rock with their pyramidal caps sheathed in gold or other bright metal so the sun’s rays would glisten on top. Ranging in height, with major obelisks about 100 feet tall, the four faces of the shaft were often deeply incised with hieroglyphics giving the names and titles of the pharaoh. Over the centuries, many of these historic monuments were transported from their original sites. Among them are an obelisk from Luxor that was brought to the Place de la Concorde in Paris in 1836, and a pair known as Cleopatra’s Needle, one of which is in New York and the other in London.
Here in the United States, hundreds, if not thousands of monuments remember the American Revolution in the form of plaques, tablets, figures in bronze and stone, and geometric designs. None achieve the size and grandeur of the giant obelisks built to commemorate the battlefields of Groton, Bunker Hill, Bennington, and Saratoga; all are big enough to enter and climb to the top. Of course, the largest of these structures—at over 555 feet tall—is the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., honoring the American army’s first commander-in-chief.
Oddly, despite their origins, obelisks seem the Revolutionary War monument of choice. In addition to these massive structures, smaller ones mark places as diverse as the battlefields at Oriskany, New York and Hubbardton, Vermont; the winter encampments at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and Redding, Connecticut; cemetery memorials for revolutionary war soldiers; the Nathan Hale Monument in Coventry, Connecticut, which honors the nation’s most famous spy; and local monuments such as the one on the Acton, Massachusetts town green dedicated to the minutemen killed in the Battle of Concord where the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired. I tracked down dates, heights, costs, materials, locations, commemorative impulses, and the difficulties of construction, but nowhere could I reconcile the conundrum of imperious design juxtaposed with democratic ideals. I was determined to make a pilgrimage to Bunker Hill and see if I could find out. Though the Groton monument, completed in 1830, was the first of its kind, its more famous cousin, maintained by the National Park Service, might have a better documented provenance.
“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” The legendary rallying cry of the Bunker Hill battle, the first major engagement of the war, echoed in my mind when I first glimpsed the smooth granite shaft rising 221 feet from its base, eighty-six feet higher than Groton. Situated on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, where most of the action took place on June 17, 1775, the monument sits at the center of an urban square that grew up around it and is surrounded on four sides by masonry buildings, mostly nineteenth-century row houses. I circled a few times before finding a parking space in front of a gaslight style street lamp and walked up one of four broad stairways that rise to a formally maintained grassy park on top. There I found some conventional statuary that seemed inconsequential beside the huge shaft.
I entered the monument through a small Greek temple of a building where a ranger summarized the action. Learning of British plans to take the heights and control shipping, colonial troops assembled on the hill at night and hastily constructed defenses. Only on the third assault did the well-trained Redcoats take the hill from patriot soldiers short of food, water and ammunition. It was however a ruinous win for the British, who suffered fifty percent casualties, and a moral victory for the colonists, who proved they would not be pushovers.
A spiral stairway of 294 steps wound around a central cone. Occasionally, there were slit openings providing a narrow view and ventilation. At the top, four Plexiglas windows beneath a domed ceiling looked out on a grid of streets crowded with buildings, an irregular shoreline, and distant hills. I was huffing from the climb, but the view itself was even more breathtaking.
Across the street, ten drawings out of fifty designs submitted for the monument were displayed in a brick museum. There were columns and shafts in various styles, some on pedestals, others rising straight from the ground. One had a lighthouse-like top, while others were crowned with eagles and urns. The design submitted by sculptor Horatio Greenough was chosen by the Bunker Hill Monument Association as “the most simple, appropriate, imposing, and as most congenial to republican institutions.” Given the analogy some of the nation’s founders made between the American cause and the Israelites fleeing Pharaoh, the last claim seemed extraordinary. A ranger emphasized the design’s simplicity as pleasing to a people overthrowing the elaborate trappings of monarchy, noting that a simple design was cheaper to build, an issue for a project plagued by funding concerns.
I left as confused as before, but cheered at having heard the familiar name of Greenough, a nineteenth-century sculptor who protested against meaningless ornamentation in architecture and believed that buildings and art expressed the morality of a people. On my return home, I pulled his book, Form and Function, from a shelf in my study. “The obelisk,” he wrote, “has to my eye a singular aptitude, in its form and character, to call attention to a spot memorable in history. It says but one word, but it speaks loud. If I understand its voice, it says, Here! It says no more. For this reason it was that I designed an obelisk for Bunker Hill.”
Was I over-thinking the symbolism of the obelisk? Was it merely a means of drawing attention to a spot, of ensuring that it would not be forgotten regardless of the structure’s retrospective connotations? I wasn’t so sure. With its architecture echoing ancient Greece and Rome, no one who has been to Washington, D.C., the city birthed by the Revolution, could possibly believe that ancient antecedents didn’t matter or send a message.
Maybe I needed to look at this obelisk riddle a little differently. Despite their geometric resemblance, significant differences between the Bunker Hill and Bennington Battle monuments might hold a clue. I headed to Vermont for a fresh look.
Tallest of the battlefield obelisks at 306 feet and topped with a bronze and gilt ten-pointed star, the Bennington Battle Monument sits on a rounded and peaceful grassy hill in the center of a well-groomed traffic circle where it’s guarded by statues of Seth Warner and John Stark, heroes of the fight. Unlike the smooth granite of its urban cousin, the shaft is rough-faced dolomite limestone with two smooth horizontal bands about three-fourths of the way up. While walking around the thirty-seven-foot square exterior, I spotted the fossilized spiral shells of prehistoric sea creatures.
Completed in 1891, the obelisk has 412 steps that are open only twice annually. Instead, an elevator whisked me to the top. Though the ride made for a less personal connection to the architecture, the spectacular view from the observation deck, just over 200 feet from the ground, was sufficient compensation. Long slotted windows that were open to cooling breezes on a warm day revealed a green, uneven and hilly country all the way to the horizon on every side. Cleared fields, homes, and the infrastructure of Bennington all seemed insignificant and subsumed by forest.
The monument site had been a military supply depot, the British objective, but not the site of the actual battle, which took place five miles away in Walloomsac, New York, according to a woman behind the counter in the modest clapboard gift shop. She explained how on August 16, 1777, untrained colonial volunteers under General Stark, along with Colonel Warner’s Green Mountain Boys, surprised the advancing Redcoats, defeating some of the best-equipped and well-disciplined troops in the world. But while she could make the battle come alive in words, she was silent on the choice of an obelisk. A souvenir book she sold depicted some of the alternative designs, which included various columns, statuary, and elaborate ornamentation.
“It’s all about the Masons,” an elderly man who had overheard my query about the obelisk said to me in a low, conspiratorial tone. “An obelisk is just a pyramid sitting on top of a tall shaft. George Washington was a Mason, and so were almost half of his generals, including John Stark.” I must have looked askance. “Check out the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill; read Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol if you don’t believe me.”
At first it seemed a revelation. My mind whirred with the notion of Masonic symbols as I drove home. The old man was right about there being a lot of Masons among the founders. It certainly would explain the shape of the Washington Monument and the role Masonic rituals had in laying the cornerstone and dedicating the completed structure.
Major-General Dr. Joseph Warren, the popular patriot leader and Mason, was martyred on the third assault at Bunker Hill. In fact, the first monument on the site was erected by the King Solomon’s Lodge of Masons to honor their fallen hero. I remembered seeing a marble model of it displayed within the base of the obelisk. But when I got home and looked up it’s image, I was suddenly deflated: it had been an eighteen-foot high wooden pillar crowned by a gilt urn. Why would the Masons themselves erect such a structure if obelisks were so sacred? Maybe there was something to the Mason connection, but it still left a lot unexplained.
The inability to capture supplies at Bennington was a significant factor in the surrender of British General John Burgoyne after the Battle of Saratoga, New York a few months later on October 17, 1777. It was a major turning point of the Revolution and, in 1912, site of the last grand battlefield obelisk to be dedicated. Situated on a grassy hill, the monument rises from where Burgoyne had his last camp in the now aptly named Village of Victory. I arrived on a crisp autumn day of azure sky and large cauliflowered cumulous clouds only to find it closed. Though disappointed, I may have been fortunate not to be distracted by what has been described as a magnificent view of the Hudson Valley. Here was an obelisk distinct from all others. The 135-foot structure was appropriately shaped, but eschewed any simplicity.
Sitting on a low pedestal, it was a towering and elaborate Victorian chapel to the Revolution, replete with columns, arched windows, statuary, double wooden doors on each face, gables, corbelling, dentils and ledges. I peered inside at what seemed a small museum with ornate iron stairs, large bronze relief wall plaques, and elaborate tile and brickwork. If an austere, unembellished form expressed democratic ideals in architecture, there was a lot of explaining to do. I drove eight miles across the battlefield with its monuments, farmsteads, redoubts and fortifications overlooking the Hudson River until I found the visitor center at Saratoga National Historical Park.
Following a long day directing people to restrooms and explaining the complex logistics of the battle in simple terms, the ranger in his green Park Service uniform seemed refreshed, intrigued by my query. After apologizing that staff cuts had reduced open hours at the monument, he called a colleague out of the back office and together they seemed to take joy in batting around ideas, most of which I’d heard before. But they also thought the popularity of obelisks might be an outgrowth of nineteenth-century interest in Egyptology following Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798 and 1799 when teams of artists and scientists were sent to explore and catalog pyramids and other antiquities. As I later learned, translation of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 further amped interest in Egyptian revival styles of architecture and later in the decorative arts. Around 1870, there was a second wave of interest in Egypt as Americans became more worldly and curious about “exotic” cultures. The obelisk at Victory, the rangers thought, was a collision of traditional Revolutionary War monumentation and Victorian aesthetics. One of the men also thought people saw poetic satisfaction in a memorial that reached for the sky and drew the eye toward heaven.
Perhaps that “poetic satisfaction” was the most critical part of war memorials, among the most obvious and tangible objects specifically designed to tell our national story and foster an identity. Remembering the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., I knew that abstract monuments were not without controversy. But maybe pure geometry, like the black granite wall, best expresses remembrance because it simultaneously engages us in recollection as we form our own images. Maya Lin’s conception brings people together even though we usually encounter walls as obstacles and separations. Likewise, perhaps the imperial obelisk has been transformed by its use on American soil. I headed to Washington, not only to visit the reflective, coal-dark wall, but the world’s tallest obelisk as well.
“It stands a memorial of the past, and a monitor to the present, and to all succeeding generations,” Daniel Webster said in an address to thousands on June 17, 1843 at the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument. As I stood on the Mall gazing up at the towering memorial to the general and president who won both the war and the peace, Webster’s words echoed back to me. I remembered Greenough’s assertion that a substantial obelisk makes a spot hard to ignore, reminding even the uninformed that something happened. Indeed, in its pure, unadorned geometry more than its size, the Washington Monument stands out among the hundreds of memorials and commemorative structures in our national city.
Contemplating the shaft’s image floating among clouds in the large rectangular Reflecting Pool, I still brooded over a symbol of autocracy reinvented to mark places where liberty was born. But, as former Speaker of the House Robert C. Winthrop remarked at the 1885 dedication of the monument, unlike an Egyptian obelisk, the memorial to Washington got its strength from the many stones “held firmly in position by their own weight and pressure,” a physical manifestation of the national motto, E pluribus unum. Glancing over to the grand dome of the Capitol, it also occurred to me that discordant, colliding viewpoints and meanings were the very essence of our constitutional system. The obelisk now seemed the perfect talisman.
Photo by David K. Leff