Friday, August 12, 2016

Along the Way: The 90th Pennsylvania Monument

Thee monument for
The 90th Pennsylvania Infantry
There possibly is no other place in Pennsylvania that attracts as many people as the Gettysburg Battlefield. I know one of the first trips I took after getting my driver's license was to visit the battlefield. I immediately found myself caught up in the history and the lore of these hallowed fields and ever since that first trip I found myself returning again and again, each time learning new and exciting pieces of information.

One particular monument that had caught my attention in my early journeys was the monument to the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry. Arriving at the junction of Mummasburg Road and Doubleday Avenue I found parking and walked to where the monument stood. One of three monuments to the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry, this one is the most recognized of the group. The monument design as earned it another name – the “Granite Tree” Monument.

The fine detail of the bark of the Stalwart Oak Tree (the name given during its dedication) gives the tree a life-like appearance. In places, the bark has been stripped by enemy fire and the top of the tree has been completely destroyed by a cannonball. 

The top of the monument
"Destroyed" by a cannonball
From one of the broken branches hangs a knapsack that is inscribed with the following: "90th P.V./2nd Brig. 2nd Div./First Corps." Above it is a shield that has the following etched into it: "Right of the First Corps - Here fought the 90th Penna infantry - On the afternoon of July 1, 1863 - Killed and mortally wounded 11, - wounded 44, captured or missing - 39, total 94, of 208 engaged - Organized at Phila. Oct. 1, 1861 - Mustered out, Nov. 26, 1864." Just above the shield, at the end of a broken branch, is the seal of the division.

The memorial was dedicated on September 3, 1888. The knapsack, shield, cannonball, rifle, scabbarded bayonet, canteen (which was sadly stolen in the early 1980s) and bird's nest were added April of the following year. Even the flank markers for the monument stay with the theme – they are tree stumps.

While the importance of the 90th Pennsylvania cannot be denied, it was the robin's nest at the top that caused me - and countless others - to stop and view the monument. After all, no other monument on the battlefield has a robin's nest on it, so why would the 90th Pennsylvania place such an item on their monument?

There is an interesting story that involves the robin's nest.

The legend of the robin's nest takes place in the midst of the fighting. During the heat of the battle a soldier saw the nest fall out of a tree that had just been hit by a cannonball. The soldier glanced into the nest and discovered a number of baby robins still alive within it. Braving enemy gunfire, he climbed a tree and placed the nest safely back in the branches.

The robin's nest
Or so the story goes.

I would like to believe that it did happen, but in the midst of the fighting, I fail to see how one man would risk everything and abandon his post to do such a thing. Maybe his superiors found it such a noble deed that they allowed it to happen. Maybe the soldier lacked common sense and braved the sharpshooters firing at him as he climbed the tree to replace it. Maybe he did rescue a nest that fell nearby and moved it to a nearby nook he could easily reach that kept the nest and bird family out of immediate harm.

There has been another thought of the origins of the robin’s nest that has appeared recently and one that I can place credence in. Maybe the robin’s nest is a symbol of new life – of a new beginning. The robin, like the mythical phoenix, is rising out of the ashes of war to start a new life.

While the true origins of the robin’s nest has never been uncovered (at least as far as I can tell), but the legend persists and the idea of the robin's nest was important enough that the veterans of the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry added the items to their monument.

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