From Portraits to Puddles, 3: Coast Guard Memorial

NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the third in a series of posts in which I point out the lessons we can learn from half a dozen memorials in Battery Park. Click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud to see all the posts. The illustrations are from the video, available here. The complete series is also available in print and as a Kindle book: details in this post.

A bit of background: We’ve seen memorials from the Civil War in the 1860s (Ericsson) and the Spanish-American War in 1898 (Dewey).

Nearly all the memorials erected  in New York for those wars honored specific leaders, although Saint Gaudens’s magnificent Sherman is a combination of portrait with an allegorical figure.

A few sculptures such as John Quincy Adams Ward’s Seventh Regiment Memorial in Central Park and the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument in the Green-Wood Cemetery represent soldiers who are low-ranking, but nevertheless proud and dignified.

The next conflict in which Americans fought was World War I. The “Great War” lasted from 1914 to 1918. Some 20 million people were killed in combat or died of disease. American troops fought from 1917 to 1918. Of the 4 million Americans sent to fight, 116,000 died. It was a horrendously traumatic conflict.

Manhattan has six memorials to those who died in World War I. These two are by Philip Martiny, who fifteen years earlier sculpted the allegorical groups that stand in front of the Surrogates’ Court on Chambers Street: New York in Infancy and New York During Revolutionary Times.

If you think something’s changing in the art of the early 20th century, you’re right … but that’s a story for another time. (Innovators in Sculpture tells part of it.)

Two  more memorials to World War I show groups of soldiers that include wounded men.

The last two honor a poet and a priest.

“Flanders Fields,” by Canadian John McCrae, was the most famous poem written about the war, and the most moving. Its last few verses are inscribed on the sculpture’s pedestal. Here’s the complete poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

Father Duffy, a Catholic priest, was a chaplain to the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth,” a regiment that lost all but 600 of its 3,500 members in barely a year.

None of Manhattan’s six memorials to the First World War stands in Battery Park. But Battery Park does have the Coast Guard Memorial, which has the same spirit as many World War I memorials. In this memorial, three over-life-size figures stand on a pedestal 4 or 5 feet high. The center figure’s head is drooping, and his arms are draped over his comrades’ shoulders. Clearly he’s been wounded.

This sculpture has been in storage since at least 2012 due to subway construction beneath the park … but someday it’ll be back!

Lesson #3

I pointed out when talking about Ericsson that the point of a memorial isn’t to teach us about a person’s life. It’s to remind us of what we know about him or her: to call to mind an admirable person whose life is worth remembering and celebrating.

The Coast Guard Memorial doesn’t teach us about the Coast Guard. It reminds us of a certain type of person who presumably thrives in the Coast Guard. The work is dangerous, but they do it anyway. And if they’re wounded or exhausted, brave comrades help them survive.


  • This essay was provoked in 2003 by the competition for the World Trade Center memorial. I originally gave it as a walking tour of sculptures in Battery Park and the southern end of Manhattan. Since 2012, it’s been available as a Kindle book: From Portraits to Puddles: New York Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center Memorial (Reflecting Absence). The end of the book has an illustrated, annotated list of 30 memorials in Manhattan dedicated to people whose job is to keep us safe: soldiers, policemen, firemen, and so on. If you want to see other memorials that are both effective and memorable, it’s a great place to start.
  • The parts of the essay will appear as a series of blog posts: click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud at right to find them.
  • This blog post is available as a video to my Patreon subscribers. (Thank you!)
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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