Every day is Memorial Day at Gettysburg National Military Park. No visitor can fail to appreciate the near-incomprehensible sacrifices made here in July 1863, thanks to the over 1,300 monuments, plaques, and other memorials set up across the battlefield. Among the more striking is the monument to the 42nd New York Infantry Regiment. It features a massive bronze sculpture of an Indian standing in front of a tepee. The Indian is Tamanend, the mythical namesake of Tammany Hall, which raised the 42nd New York.
Few associate near-incomprehensible sacrifice with the name “Tammany Hall.” The most notorious of America’s political machines, Tammany was active, and often dominant, in New York politics from the early nineteenth century to around the mid-twentieth century. Tammany left no form of corruption unpursued—bribery, extortion, kickbacks, shakedowns, patronage, election fraud, voter intimidation, outright thievery, and protecting criminal enterprises such as brothels and the mafia.
At the same time, Tammany thought of itself as civic-minded. Before it was a machine, Tammany functioned as a fraternal society. It used Native American imagery to express republican simplicity. The head of the organization was the “Grand Sachem”; the rank and file were “braves.” Another Tamanend statue sat atop Tammany’s longtime headquarters (or “wigwam”) on East 14th Street, just off Union Square.
Tammany Hall hosted July 4 celebrations in Union Square that were, for legions of working-class New Yorkers, the social event of the year, and perhaps more than that. In the touchstone work Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany politico named for the father of our country, described those celebrations as “a liberal education in patriotism”:
The great hall upstairs is filled with five thousand people, suffocatin’ from heat and smoke. Every man Jack of these five thousand knows that down in the basement there’s a hundred cases of champagne and two hundred kegs of beer ready to flow when the signal is given. Yet that crowd stick to their seats without turnin’ a hair while, for four solid hours, the Declaration of Independence is read, long-winded orators speak, and the glee club sings itself hoarse . . . just think of five thousand men sittin’ in the hottest place on earth for four long hours, with parched lips and gnawin’ stomachs, and knowin’ all the time that the delights of the oasis in the desert were only two flights downstairs! Ah, that is the highest kind of patriotism, the patriotism of long sufferin’ and endurance . . . And then see how they applaud and yell when patriotic things are said! As soon as the man on the platform starts off with “when in the course of human events,” word goes around that it’s the Declaration of Independence, and a mighty roar goes up.
Political scientists credit Tammany with shoring up civil society and assimilating generations of immigrants. Many of those immigrants fought with the 42nd New York, as shown by the prominent shamrock on the pedestal supporting the Tamanend bronze.
The 42nd New York monument stands at one of Gettysburg’s more prominent spots—on Cemetery Ridge, close to the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” and Copse of Trees. The Copse of Trees was long considered to be the objective of Pickett’s Charge, which the Tammany Regiment helped repulse on the battle’s climactic third day. The 42nd New York fought in most major battles in the Civil War’s eastern theater: the Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor. Out of a total strength of 1,210, 258 died, mostly as a result of battle wounds. The tally for Gettysburg itself was 15 killed and 55 wounded.
Gettysburg National Military Park remains vandalism-free, though who knows what the next round of “mostly peaceful protests” might hold in store. Numerous Union soldiers served in the Indian Wars. Examples from Gettysburg alone include George Armstrong Custer, John Buford, and Oliver Howard (for whom Howard University was named). In June 2020, rioters toppled a Ulysses S. Grant bust in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park; in December 2020, Boston took down the Emancipation Memorial featuring President Lincoln and a freed slave, itself financed by donations from former slaves. Also in Boston, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial was tagged with graffiti. That work’s bas-relief depicts the 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, and does so in a manner traditionally heralded as both realistic and stirring. If the Shaw Memorial isn’t safe, nothing is.
Modern progressives often seem to think that they’re the first to discover flaws in our national heroes. The 1891 dedication ceremony for the 42nd New York’s monument centered around an oration by general Dan Sickles, a scandalous figure famous for having shot his wife’s lover to death one day in Lafayette Square. Tammany’s own unsavoriness goes beyond corruption. Many members were “Peace Democrats,” the antiwar coalition of northerners whom Robert E. Lee meant to empower through his 1863 invasion. They feared that their jobs would be seized by an influx of newly liberated blacks, though, as historian John Strausbaugh points out in City of Sedition, Irish immigrants had in fact taken many jobs from freedmen in northern cities during the first half of the nineteenth century. But on the other side of the balance weighs the blood shed by Tammany braves to resolve an existential question that had resisted peaceful means of resolution across decades of debate and compromise. Slavery had to be dealt with through armed conflict. For many, that’s an abstract proposition fit for somber reflection. Others lived it.