Buck went to work that fall for the Augusta Chronicle night-side…The newsroom was dingy and ink-stained and smelled of stale cigarette smoke and chemicals. It had a recognizable horseshoe-shaped news desk, one of the first things you saw when you got off the elevator. The city desk was four wooden desks jammed together, with police and fire scanners muttering from their stands on the ceiling supports. The rest of the desks and old wooden swivel chairs were scattered in no perceptible order…It was his first night-side newspaper… like stepping into a novel about nighttime Manhattan or Vegas or any other famous round-the-clock venue, just smaller scale. The news crew seemed like extras from a script by Damon Runyon or Ben Hecht….
— Newspaper Gypsy, William R. Burkett, Jr.
I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation. — George Bernard Shaw
The Man on the Monument
Unlike Shaw I don’t often quote myself. Certainly not my fiction. But a recent internet story about my hometown reminded me of 1967 when I was Sunday editor of the Chronicle. Not coincidentally, same year the fictitious newsman I invented years later went to work.
The newspaper then stood in the 700 Block of Broad Street. Evidently it still does. A fact noted only peripherally in the internet story about the Confederate monument in the middle of the street. Augusta-born three-quarters of a century ago, I never questioned the local brag that Broad Street was second in width only to Canal Street in New Orleans — but not by much. I eventually looked it up:Broad Street: 166 feet wide;Canal Street: 170.6. In that wide expanse, the tall marble monument was visible as the huge Arc de Triomphe in Paris’s Etoile. But the Arc memorialized historic victories. Augusta’s was a memorial to the Lost Cause.
Windows of my Sunday editor’s cubicle overlooked the monument. I was in a morose mood when I wrote my first magazine column.“Rain is Memories Just Beyond the Window” described cold winter rain sluicing from stone hat brims of the marble soldiers. The posture of the dripping infantryman atop the tall edifice conveyed resigned endurance, a fitting metaphor for my piece about things lost and left behind, because I was just out of another army, where I weathered downpours of my own. One of the two women who loved me that year illustrated my column with moody pen and ink: an anonymous shirt-sleeved man staring into the raining night.
Reading an internet story about the NAACP demanding the memorial’s removal from Broad Street flashed me back to that raining night. Many years, thousands of words, several newspapers and more than several women ago, I was surprised I hadn’t transferred the marble Rebel’s image to my novel. In those days it was no more remarkable than the Southern Finance Building or the allegedly haunted house on Upper Broad where British troops hanged thirteen of an earlier breed of Georgia Rebel, one for each colony. There’s a lot of history in the second city built in Georgia in the early Eighteenth Century. I never walked over to read the inscription. Didn’t know the four men depicted around the base were Southern generals, including one Augustan. It was the butternut dog-face on the pinnacle who spoke to me.
Now, the word is, the politically correct want to get rid of him. No memorial is sacred this time around. Not Lincoln. Not Columbus. Not even Douglass, for Christ’s sake. It’s as if Muslim “aniconism,” avoidance of images of sentient beings…in art, prowls the streets of the United States. Probably an irrational reaction; I’ve been gone from the South fifty years. From “Fort Disgusta” as my grandmother called it. The arsenal town stubbornly proud Sherman chose to march around it on his way from Atlanta to the sea.
I wondered belatedly what I missed by never strolling over to the monument for a look. Computers are good for satisfying curiosity. From the far side of the nation I finally read its inscription, set in stone by Southern women. Guaranteed to set modern sensibility on edge. Found the name of the Italian sculptor who used marble from the same quarry Michelangelo used for David. And that residents refer to the soldier up top simply as “the man on the monument.” I looked him up.
A Rebel Audie Murphy, Berry Greenwood Benson was born across the Savannah River in South Carolina. In April 1861 before he was old enough to vote he manned a battery for the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter. Age 18 he was a corporal at Second Manassas, at Antietam, at Fredericksburg. He was with Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, helped “roll up” the Union line til darkness fell. He actually heard the Rebel volley of “friendly fire” that killed Jackson. Next day he was wounded and evacuated to Augusta, missing Gettysburg, but returned to duty for the “Wilderness,” and was in the thick of helping block Grant’s attempt to take Richmond: “one of the most terrible battles of the Civil War.”
Then he was sent to scout a Union camp. And stole a Yankee colonel’s horse before returning. Lee sent him out again. Second time unlucky. Captured and interned in Maryland, he slipped into Chesapeake Bay, swam two miles to escape. Recaptured, sent eventually to New York. Where he and other prisoners dug a 65-foot-long tunnel to freedom before he ghosted through the entire Union Army to rejoin his regiment.
Furloughed in 1864, he returned to Augusta. Sherman had bypassed it to besiege Savannah and he rushed to Savannah’s defense. Some furlough. By 1865 he was a sergeant commanding riflemen the equivalent of today’s snipers. Later he led a fighting retreat toward Appomattox. He and his younger brother chose not to surrender there, left for General Johnston’s forces in North Carolina. But Johnson was about to surrender too. They carried their rifles home to Augusta, never having surrendered.
When the Ladies Memorial Association of Augusta caused erection of the monument, unveiled in 1878, they chose Benson to represent the unsung grunts of the Confederacy. The Man on the Monument. No wonder. His stubbornness typifies all I know of being Augustan. My family moved away before I could attend Richmond Academy, the city’s quasi-military high school, of which one of the generals on the monument was a graduate. As were my uncles serving against Hitler’s Third Reich. Officer and enlisted, historical or anonymous, civil or world war, The Man on the Monument stands for us all despite winds of political change. Change is inevitable. So I suppose there is nothing to be done.
I take consolation from the idea monuments and tombstones are unnecessary. Maybe words suffice. We are a species of words. Spoken words, words on paper, words on a screen. Words bind our conscious mind to our unconscious history. Each community has its heroes. Often unsung, mostly forgotten.
No less a thinker than Pericles of Athens said it long ago: “The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men and their story is not given only on stone over their clay but abides everywhere without visible symbol woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.” A pretty thought.
I still wish they’d leave the Man on the Monument alone.