Standing tall in the heart of downtown Allentown, the Lehigh County Soldiers and Sailors Monument seems like it has always been there, and, for 112 years, it has.
So it is hard to imagine a time when it was not there. But truth to tell it was not there until 1899; it came pretty close to never being there at all; and it was almost moved from the site several times.
The Civil War deeply divided America, and the Lehigh Valley was among the places it divided most. Strongly conservative, many folks had little time for arguments put forward by abolitionists. They liked the country as it had always been and felt there was no reason to trouble the South over slavery. But when the states began to leave the Union that was the line for many. To keep their country together, they were willing to fight and die. After five years of fighting and dying, there was lot of bitterness.
Although Catasauqua, a generally Republican iron-making center was among the first places in Pennsylvania, in October 1866, to raise a monument to its Union dead, it took a lot longer elsewhere. Allentown and the rest of Lehigh County had voted strongly against the war and Lincoln in 1864's presidential election. And even a Union victory left hard feelings.
For the next 30 years local veterans grew grayer as the county and city argued over how they should be honored, and, perhaps more importantly who, the city or the county, was going to honor them. Finally, in August of 1896, a petition was circulated to do something that most other counties in the state had already done, build a monument to local veterans. The proposal was overwhelmingly favored. But even having it presented by Medal of Honor winner Ignatz Gresser did little good and the politicians turned it down. But public opinion had shifted. A second petition with even more signers got the officials to agree to a compromise: the county would pay for the monument if the city would maintain it.
The Pennsylvania Monument Association of Philadelphia, a private monument builder, was chosen for the work at a cost of $39,000. The association's president, Edward Gallagher Jr., oversaw the project by his staff artists, Bartholomew Francis Xavier Donovan and Henry F. Plaschart. Center Square was selected as the site.
On June 26, 1899 the cornerstone was laid. Taking part in the services was Rev. Stephen Albion Repass, the pastor of Allentown's St. John's Lutheran Church, and a former Confederate veteran who had fought and was captured at Gettysburg. He was one of the few members of Picketts's charge to make it over the fabled stonewall, later known as the high water mark of the Confederacy. A box was placed at the base of the monument that included a cannonball from the battle of Bull Run and other items.
The monument was completed on September 2, 1899 and its statues covered with bunting. When the Goddess of Liberty at its summit had her shroud shredded by the wind, Allentonian Henry Smith climbed up the scaffold and removed the strips of cloth leaving Liberty unveiled.
October 19, 1899 was the date of the monument's dedication. It was selected by veterans because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia. The 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the largest single regiment of local troops that fought in the war, had taken an active role in that Union victory. Organizers had wanted an earlier date out of fear of bad weather but the veterans would not budge.
The weather was on the side of the veterans. October 19th dawned, clear and cloudless. Photos show crowds of thousands, if not tens of thousands jamming the streets of Allentown.
Governor William E. Stone was there with a large delegation of state politicians. But the chief speaker was George F. Bear, president of the Reading Railroad, and personal advisor to investment banker J.P. Morgan. Using a great deal of what was known as "spread-eagle oratory," he extolled the veterans. Bear's speech, which took up generous column space in the local newspapers, probably could not be heard beyond the first three rows of listeners. Most people learned what he said from reading it.
Another speaker, Lehigh County solicitor and former Congressman C.J. Erdman, a Democrat who, as a Gettysburg College student in 1863, had briefly spoken to Lincoln the day he gave the Gettysburg Address, noted that the monument was "an enduring tribute to the valor and patriotism of our soldiers so that the memory of great and mighty deeds may never fade."
The monument was unveiled by eight young women, all granddaughters of Civil War veterans. The portion of the monument that attracted the most attention was that of a Confederate arm in arm with a Union veteran. Under them were the words "ONE FLAG ONE COUNTRY."
The addition of the Confederate was designed to show national reconciliation and to honor Repass, a much respected figure. Its model was local man James Crader, who had fought on the Union side at Gettysburg. At the monument's 100th anniversary in 1999, his granddaughter showed a photo of Crader taken in 1899. It is the spitting image of the man on the monument.
Everyone was so pleased with the monument, they were willing to overlook the slight cost overrun of $43,000. Only later when it was discovered that the statutes were not the promised bronze, but merely painted bronze, was there a complaint.
In 1906 there was the first talk of moving the monument. The most vigorous effort was made in the 1950s. It was said to slow traffic and make Allentown look like a "hick town." But in a 1962 referendum, pro-move forces were defeated in a countywide vote of 40,619 to 20,841.
Today there is talk of building a minor league hockey arena just feet away, but this time no one is looking to move Allentown's tribute to its Civil War veterans, still standing tall after more than a century.