Along the Way: 90th Pennsylvania Monument

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The 90th Pennsylvania Infantry Monument, Gettysburg. Insert: a close-up of the bird’s nest.

There possibly is no other place in Pennsylvania that attracts as many people as the Gettysburg Battlefield. From the first visit, I found myself caught up in the history and lore of these hallowed grounds. With each return trip, I discovered new and exciting pieces of information about the battle, the monuments, and the general history of the region.

One particular monument that caught my attention in my early journeys was the monument to the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry. Arriving at the junction of Mummasburg Road and Doubleday Avenue, I found parking and walked to where the monument stood on Oak Ridge. This monument is one of three to the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry and is the most recognizable of the monuments dedicated to the regiment. The monument’s design has earned it another name – the Granite Tree Monument.

The fine detail of the bark of the Stalwart Oak Tree – the name given during its dedication on September 3, 1888 – gives the monumental tree a life-like appearance. In places, the bark has been stripped by enemy fire and the top of the tree has been completely destroyed by Confederate artillery. The knapsack, shield, cannonball, rifle, scabbarded bayonet, canteen (which was sadly stolen in the early 1980s) and bird’s nest were added in April of the following year. Even the flank markers for the monument stay with the theme – they are tree stumps.

From one of the broken branches hangs a knapsack that is inscribed with the following: “90th P.V. / 2nd Brig. 2nd Div./First Corps.” Above it is a shield that has the following etched into it: “Right of the First Corps / Here fought the 90th Penna infantry / On the afternoon of July 1, 1863 / Killed and mortally wounded 11, / wounded 44, captured or missing / 39, total 94, of 208 engaged / Organized at Phila. Oct. 1, 1861 / Mustered out, Nov. 26, 1864.” Just above the shield, at the end of a broken branch, is the seal of the division.

It was during the first day that the regiment saw action, and it was during this fighting that Major Alfred Sellers would take action that would result in him being awarded the Medal of Honor. On July 1, he took actions to voluntarily lead the regiment to repulse a Confederate push upon the Union line. During the second and third days of the battle, the regiment was kept in reserve.

While the importance of the 90th Pennsylvania cannot be denied, it was the bird’s nest at the top that caused me – and countless others – to stop and view the monument. After all, no other monument on the battlefield has a bird’s nest on it, so why would the veterans of the 90th Pennsylvania place such an item on their monument?

There is a legend about how the bird’s nest, which many legends claim is a robin’s nest, came to be on the monument. The story goes: in the midst of the fighting, a soldier saw a nest fall out of a tree that had just been hit by a cannonball. The soldier glanced into the nest and discovered a number of baby birds still alive within it. Braving enemy gunfire, he climbed a tree and placed the nest safely back in the branches.

Or so the story goes.

I would like to believe that this legend is based on fact, however, in the midst of the fighting, I fail to see how one man would risk everything and abandon his position to rescue a nest of baby birds.

Digging deeper into the origins of the legend , I came across a copy of Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Vol. 1. Buried within the dedication speeches I found the dedication of the monument for the 90th Pennsylvania Monument. In the speech delivered by Brevet-Colonel A. J. Sellers, he states: “The war is over! The dove, which brought the glad tidings of a regenerated world, here is used to symbolize the era of peace and good will between man and man.”

The nest, is not a robin’s nest like the legends proclaim, but is the nest of a dove. The dove is considered a symbol of peace and the nest is a symbol of new life and a new beginning. The dove, like the mythical phoenix, is rising out of the ashes of war to start a new life of peace and prosperity for one united nation. And here, perched a top the monument to the 90th Pennsylvania, that new beginning is memorialized, upon a tree scarred by war, in the form of a dove feeding her young.

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