Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Memorial Day Re-Dedication

Original setting of Silent Sentry sculpture, Mount Moriah Cemetery

I very rarely time my blogs with particular events. Not because I don’t try, but because I’m scatterbrained. You would think this would be relatively easy, with, for instance, holidays, which tend to happen on the same day every year! But for Memorial Day 2016, I believe I will actually be able to post a topical blog in time for the holiday! Now, I’m not perfect – the Memorial Day event about which I’m writing actually happened two years ago, in 2014. 
Re-enactors at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, for re-dedication of the Silent Sentry, 2014

But here’s a timeless fact: Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was originally called), an observance with Civil War origins, was first officially held on May 30, 1868. It was observed in Philadelphia at Laurel Hill Cemetery on that date (ref.).

The Silent Sentry

Ed Snyder with Silent Sentry
But on the Memorial Day in question, in 2014, the Civil War memorial bronze statue "The Silent Sentry" (sometimes referred to tas the "Silent Sentinel") was unveiled to a crowd of hundreds at Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery. I attended the re-dedication ceremony. It was quite an event, attended by Civil War re-enactors (both men and women), musicians, historians, members of the General Meade Society, the clergy, the military – in short, people from many walks of life. (The photo of me with the statue was made in May, 2013, when the Silent Sentry was initially delivered to Laurel Hill Cemetery.)

After gathering at the gatehouse on that bright sunny day, the crowd first proceeded to the grave of General George Meade (successful Union Army Commander at the Battle of Gettysburg), where some speeches and three 21-gun salutes were made. I happened to be in the wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) place at the time of the salute. I was standing directly behind the line of Civil War re-enactor soldiers when they raised their rifles and fired into the air! I was surprised by the loud reports and the smoke! However, I did manage to snap a few photos, one of which ended up on the front page of the Philadelphia Public Record newspaper a week after the event (click to see image). This is the photo below.

Civil War reenactors giving a 21-gun salute at General George Meade's grave

After Meade's headstone was decorated with floral wreaths (the original intent of "Decoration Day"), those assembled processed to the site of the veiled Silent Sentry statue, which had been placed high up on a newly-made granite pedestal. The original pedestal was long ago reused for a statue in Gettysburg National Cemetery, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

The Silent Sentry statue itself, a magnificent seven-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze of a Civil War soldier, was originally in residence at Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery. It was installed on the Yeadon, PA side of the cemetery in 1884; Mount Moriah spans two counties, half of it is in Philadelphia, the other half in Delaware County.

Ceremony at General George Meade's grave site

When and why did the Silent Sentry leave Mount Moriah?

If you’re a reader of my blog, you’re probably aware of the fact that Mount Moriah was in pretty bad shape between the years 1970 to 2011. The prior owners allowed it to become overgrown and did not maintain it. The volunteer organization, The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., took over maintenance of Mount Moriah in 2012 after the enormous property (reputedly 300 acres) was legally abandoned. The Silent Sentry originally stood guard at the Soldiers' Home of Philadelphia plot, which was “a civilian organization that helped care for indigent and disabled Civil War veterans ... The home bought a plot at Mount Moriah for soldiers who died under its care” (ref.). The photo at the beginning of this article is a late-1800s image of the Silent Sentry in its original location (image is owned by the The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. or FOMMCI, and not for reproduction elsewhere).

The plot is the final resting place for 96 Civil War soldiers. In 1889, after 25 years of service, the Soldiers Home “dissolved their corporation and deeded their treasury and burial lots and memorials in Trust to the ‘Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States,’” or MOLLUS (ref.).
Civil War veterans' MOLLUS Plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Since then, the original Soldiers Home plot has been referred to as the MOLLUS plot. The plot with its small white marble headstones is still there (see photo above), but the statue and pedestal are gone. The Silent Sentry was removed in the 1970s by thieves, who stole it and attempted to sell it to a Camden, New Jersey scrap yard. The scrap dealer notified authorities, who retrieved the damaged sculpture. It was taken to the Laran Bronze foundry in Chester, PA where it was repaired. The bronze statue remained there for about forty years, as MOLLUS did not feel there was adequate security at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

The Silent Sentry’s New Home

Silent Sentry at Laurel Hill Cemetery
The statue has found a new home in Philadelphia’s historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, and was unveiled and
rededicated on Memorial Day 2014. It “stands watch over the Gen. Meade Post No. 1 Grand Army of the Republic burial plot, looking out at the cemetery where nearly 20 other generals from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, World War I and World War II also are buried” (ref). A fitting place for the statue, in many people’s opinion.

Silent Sentry arriving at Laurel Hill Cemetery, 2013 (

MOLLUS wanted a more secure location for the Silent Sentry. Although the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. has made great strides in improving the condition of the cemetery since 2012, there is still little security to guarantee the safety of the such a valuable piece of art. The new location is well-lit, near a public road, and fenced in. 

Veiled "Silent Sentry" statue at left, Laurel Hill Cemetery

But back to the re-dedication of the statue. Speeches were made and music was played during the ceremony. It was a rather solemn event. People forget that Memorial Day means more than just a cookout in the back yard with family and friends. Memorial Day honors those who have died in the defense of their country. Originally, the occasion referred specifically to decorating the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. The legal holiday originated in 1868 by the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), an organization of Union veterans, for the purpose of honoring Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Confederate traditions were observed on a different day but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the two had merged. The nation began observing the day in honor of all those who have died while in military service.  

At the lovely after-party following the ceremony, everyone had a chance to mingle and enjoy complimentary refreshments. I met a gentleman who introduced himself as a member of the “Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.” Knowing that my friend Sam Ricks, a member of the “Sons of Confederate Veterans“ was nearby, I introduced them to each other. After they smiled and shook hands, I slipped away into the crowd ….

References and Further Reading: