Of Soldiers and Sailors

In downtown Cleveland, surrounded by four right angles of traffic, stands The Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, or known locally as Cleveland’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. The monument’s most notable recognition would probably come from the opening scenes of “A Christmas Story,” where little Ralphie, his brother Randy, and all their friends press their noses against the display windows of Higbee’s Department Store—in the background stands the monument ignorant of the Christmas season, blackened by years of soot and pollution from the burning furnaces of steel mills circling the city like like stationary iron and chromium buttresses.

The Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument after a recent cleaning.

Today the monument has been cleaned and invites visitors to look at her insides, walls lined with gray granite and Amherst sandstone where the names of local soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War are carved, with the notable exception of any Black soldiers who served (apparently there are plans to add those missing names to the stone walls as the names are discovered through research), and four interior bronze wall reliefs depicting important moments of the Civil War. Above the walls are the bronze carved images of high ranking officers. The yellow, bronze and red colored walls and their echo gives today’s visitor the feeling that he/she is in the bathroom of train station.  Albeit a clean bathroom, but this is a step back in time when the cultural symbols were different. When memorializing and the neutral color of yellow depicted remembrance. Still, around the exterior of the monument all you can smell is urine— you can see the decades of piss stains on the red sandstone.

The interior of The Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument.

These stains are visual echoes of our culture today. There is very little reverence, let alone understanding, of our past. While the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are guarded so closely that it’s impossible to mark your territory, you get the same lack of historical understanding by the visitors who click cellphone photos and allow their children to run and play below the words of Abraham Lincoln. And it’s not that Americans don’t care, but so many Americans just don’t have the historical context.

This begs the question—what will be repeating in our future if no one has remembered what’s happened in our past?

I walk around the monument taking photos and I’m struck by the details and its sincerity, but how many people are going to come to Cleveland to see it? Was this evera place where Ohioans made pilgrimages to remember what their fathers and grandfathers and great great grandpa’s had done?  Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is like all the other memorials and monuments of America—signposts and landmarks people use to give directions to go somewhere else, meeting places, or public art ignored, unnoticed by people going to work, going home or just going.

Interior relief of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.


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