MOUNT VERNON -- At over 140 years in age, Mount Vernon's Civil War monument on Public Square remains vigilant, his gaze quiet but attentive as he looks down Main Street toward the south.
The seed of an idea
The idea for a monument began as early as 1863, in the midst of the war, when Rachel Banning Raymond proposed the idea of a monument to the Young Ladies' Union League. The idea picked up momentum after the end of the war in 1865, but it would still take over a decade of fund raising to make the project a reality.
The group rechristened itself the Mount Vernon Ladies' Monument Association, and began putting plans in place.
Leading Mount Vernon citizen Henry B. Curtis designed the monument, which called for a standard Union solider statue to be placed atop a granite column. The statue is one of the earlier soldier monuments being cast by foundries in the north that had turned to monument work after the end of the war saw a sharp reduction in the amount of armament orders.
According to the PBS documentary 10 That Changed America, these foundries supplied both north and south with statues. The casting molds had modular parts that would allow the generic soldier to be equipped with a Union cap or Confederate hat, with belt buckle initials changing from “U.S.” to “C.S.” as needed.
The style of soldier purchased for the Knox County monument is one based on a design by Irish immigrant Martin Milmore, first cast in 1867.
Under the leadership of Ruth Muenscher, the committee raised $5000 for the monument. Gray granite from Vermont was used for the foundation and column, assembled by the J.B. McKenna company of Mount Vernon. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1876, and contained a time capsule that included Bibles, copies of the Declaration of Independence and both U.S. and Ohio constitutions, lists of officials, copies of current newspapers, programs from a theatrical fundraiser and from the dedication event, itself. The time capsule was topped off with a selection of current coins.
Subsequent construction of the monument took exactly one year. The memorial was dedicated on July 4, 1877. According to Frederick N. Lorey's History of Knox County, Ohio, 1876-1976, the day began with a 38-gun salute. Bells were sounded all over the city, and a large crowd of people assembled on Public Square. The Silver Cornet Band played as part of the large parade leading officials up to the monument.
Henry B. Curtis presented the memorial to Civil War veteran Major General George Washington Morgan, who accepted on behalf of the people of Knox County, and politician Columbus Delano gave the keynote address.
The panels on each side of the base are inscribed:
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" meaning "It is glorious and honorable to die for one's country."
In grateful appreciation of the patriotism and self sacrifice of the lamented sons and soldiers of Knox co. who for their country and freedom laid down their lives in the war of great rebellion.
This monument is erected.
“They laid down their own lives that the life of the nation might be preserved and share in the glory of securing to every dweller in the land a heritage of human freedom and their blood helped cement that union which has made this great people now and forever one.
“In honor of the victorious and triumph of the national arms in the war of great rebellion 1861-5 and in the memory of the noble sons of Knox County Ohio who fought and who fell in that conflict.
"Our country by that dread name we wave the sword on high and swears for her to live-for her to die."
“Erected by the Mount Vernon Ladies Monument Association July 4, A.D. 1877.”
For years, there was a rumor that the quote had a mistake created by a drunken stone cutter who carved “dread” instead of “dear.” When compiling his history in 1976, Frederick Lorey asked Mount Vernon librarian Edwina Fitzgerald to track down the original quote.
It turns out that the carver was correct: the word was indeed “dread.” It comes from the once-popular heroic poem “Pleasures of Hope” by the now mostly-forgotten British poet Thomas Campbell.
For years, Public Square was known locally as “Monument Square,” but that name gradually dropped away over the years as the soldier became a regular feature of the downtown area, rarely discussed.
That changed briefly in the spring of 2014, when a wayward driver crashed into the base of the statue, necessitating the replacement of the wrought-iron fence surrounding the monument. Fortunately, the soldier stood firm and didn't yield to the charge.
Since then, he's remained quietly on guard.