Silent Sentry back on watch over graves of Civil War veterans

PHILADELPHIA — The Silent Sentry has returned to duty, just in time for Memorial Day.

After a strange 121-year odyssey that took it from a Yeadon/Southwest Philadelphia cemetery to a Camden scrapyard and Chester foundry, the 700-pound bronze statue of a Union soldier is again standing tall over the graves of Civil War veterans.

It will be rededicated at noon on Sunday at Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls.

The unveiling will be part of ceremonies marking Memorial Day, an observance with Civil War origins that was first officially held in Philadelphia at Laurel Hill on May 30, 1868.

"We're returning [the statue] to its original sacred task: commemorating the fallen and symbolically guarding their graves into perpetuity," said historian Andy Waskie, a member of the Board of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and an associate member of the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), which owns the monument.

The Silent Sentry was heavily damaged by thieves who tore it from its granite base at Mount Moriah Cemetery four decades ago, but has been restored and provided a new base.

"It will inspire the public and recall the selfless service of our veterans," said Waskie, a Temple University professor and author of Philadelphia and the Civil War — Arsenal of the Union. "It's been out of public view for 40 years but has returned to the daylight, and its normal post of honor."

The green patinated bronze, depicting a Union soldier standing at parade rest while clasping the end of a musket, will be difficult to miss — day or evening — at its new location along Ridge Avenue.

It will be illuminated at night "like an eternal flame in Philadelphia honoring all veterans," said Waskie, who was the driving force behind efforts to move the statue to its new home. "It will become an icon, a symbol of Laurel Hill."

The 71/2-foot figure is a natural fit for the Victorian-era cemetery, a kind of Civil War Valhalla where 42 generals and admirals are buried, including Union Gen. George Gordon Meade, the victorious commander at the Battle of Gettysburg.

It will stand 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.

"In addition to the profound meaning behind the Sentry's purpose in guarding the graves of our veterans, the monument is aesthetically exceptional," said Gwen Kaminski, the cemetery's director of development. "It adds greatly to Laurel Hill's rich repository of art and sculpture."

On Sunday, scores of people are expected to turn out for the rededication where they will hear period band music and see Civil War reenactors fire volleys in honor of those who died in America's war.

The speakers will include Brig. Gen. Wilbur E. Wolf 3d of the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard; Waldron Kintzing Post 2d, MOLLUS's commander-in-chief, and Richard Wood Snowden, the great great grandson of Union Col. A. Loudon Snowden, the keynote speaker at the 1883 dedication of the Silent Sentry at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Also known as the Silent Sentinel, the monument had been commissioned by the Soldiers' Home of Philadelphia, a civilian organization that helped care for indigent and disabled Civil War veterans, Waskie said. The home bought a plot at Mount Moriah for soldiers who died under its care.

The figure was designed and sculpted by artist Henry Manger, a German immigrant, and cast at a local foundry. Two of the foundry owners who worked on the project, Achille Bureau and Charles Heaton, were Union veterans and are buried at Laurel Hill.

The monument remained at Mount Moriah amid neat rows of white marble headstones until the 1970s, when it disappeared, as though deserting a post.

Thieves removed it, then tried to sell it to a Camden scrap dealer, who alerted authorities. The police, the Civil War Library and Museum, and MOLLUS then rescued the artwork and stored it at the Laran Bronze foundry in Chester, where it was repaired.

Its relocation was proposed by Waskie, who formed a fund-raising committee and last May saw the delivery of the statue, now valued at about $20,000. It was temporarily stored in the cemetery's gatehouse.

"I realized we had to do something," Waskie said. "We wanted to share it with the public."

More than $40,000 was collected for a granite base, plaque, installation, lighting, and upkeep.

"The site is spectacular," Waskie said. "People driving by on Ridge Avenue will be able to see the [figure's] profile."

On its base, the statue stands 18 feet over 12 graves at the Meade plot, among them the last resting place of Lt. William Tyrrell, a color bearer wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg and provost marshal at the time of President Lincoln's assassination.

But it also looks out over a cemetery with 1,500 more Civil War veteran burials. Laurel Hill probably has as many as 10,000 who served in U.S. wars, Waskie said.

The Silent Sentry "is as nice a monument as you can get," said Bill Doran, the cemetery's superintendent who designed a base that discourages climbing and helped install it and the statue.

After the earlier theft, Doran wanted to make sure the monument was secure. The figure was attached to the granite with steel pins and epoxy. A fence along Ridge Avenue and the spotlights afford additional security.

"It's fitting that [the statue] is here," Doran said. "It looks fantastic."

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