This gift from America to Scotland can be understood as a symbol of Gilded Age transatlantic relations.
On August 21, 1893, a bronze stature of Abraham Lincoln was erected in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland. This article examines the story of this monument and the motivations of the men who erected it, as a way of understanding Lincoln’s legacy on Scottish shores. Further, this gift from America to Scotland can be understood as a symbol of Gilded Age transatlantic relations.
By four o’clock on the 21st of August, 1893, a large crowd had assembled in Old Calton Cemetery in the heart of Edinburgh. Braving a sharp south-westerly wind, people pressed shoulder to shoulder within the grounds and a throng of eager late-arrivals massed at the gates, proffering their admittance cards and vying for space. Onlookers stood at nearby windows and balconies, straining for a glimpse of the scene. A platform had been erected in the centre of the space, trimmed with sprigs of heather and adorned with British and American flags and the Scottish standard. Atop the platform sat an array of distinguished guests, Lord Provost Russell, in full regalia, was flanked by American Consul Wallace Bruce and celebrated civil engineer Sir William Arrol—master of ceremonies for the afternoon’s events. Bailies and Councillors, leading military men and others who had an interest or a role in the proceedings also braved the chill, along with the lucky Edinburgh residents who had managed to secure a pass. Facing the crowd was a guard of honor from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders accompanied by band and piper to form a military presence some 250 strong. They had marched from Edinburgh Castle, down the Mound and past Waverley Bridge in a snaking procession visible to a good portion of the city centre. At exactly half past four, the band fell silent and all waited in hushed anticipation. Just to one side of the platform, hidden beneath both the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack, was the reason for all the fuss. A young woman stepped forward, dressed in classical garb to represent the American spirit Columbia, she pulled on a cord and the flags fell away to reveal a bronze statue of Lincoln atop a granite base. The crowd erupted in applause. (Lincoln Monument 5–8.) What was the sixteenth President of the United States doing in Edinburgh? How did the statue come to be there, and what did it represent? This article examines the story of this monument and the motivations of the men who erected it, as a way of understanding Lincoln’s legacy on Scottish shores. Further, this gift from America to Scotland can be understood as a symbol of Gilded Age transatlantic relations.
Scotland’s Perspective on the American Civil War
To understand the context for the Edinburgh memorial, it is first necessary to examine Scotland’s perspective on the American Civil War. In the antebellum period, Scottish relations with the United States had taken the form of cultural and family ties formed through decades of emigration, a political and philosophical interest in the American ‘experiment,’ and economic interests based primarily around transatlantic trade. The war was to focus Scots’ attention on the United States such as never before (Peters 134).
More column inches and hours of debate were spent on the American Civil War than any contemporary conflict that raged in Europe or the Colonies, and from the houses of Parliament to the popular press, the British took sides. The British working class tended to be pro-Union, yet in many communities the response was hamstrung by simultaneous reliance upon cotton and revulsion towards the system that delivered it. This tension was acute in many communities in Scotland that were to suffer severe deprivations due to the unavailability of cotton. Nevertheless, historians have concluded that liberal, abolitionist political principle consistently trumped economic materialism and led to broad support for the Union (Blackett). This issue was more problematic in Glasgow than in Edinburgh as the more industrialized city was home to dockyards along the River Clyde that became “the chief naval base of the Confederacy” (Kennedy 414). Yet when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the Scottish press, abolitionist sentiment became a powerful counter-weight; the American Consul in Glasgow found his office inundated with applications from local men who wished to join the Union army. One officer of the Glasgow Volunteer Corps was certain he could raise an entire regiment if passage to the U.S. could be granted, an offer that was never taken up (Botsford 2:920).
The history of Scottish, and indeed British, service in the American Civil War is patchy; it is possible to trace the narratives of certain individuals with a few details from official records, letters and biographies. Yet without a much larger study, it is difficult to say anything conclusive on the motivations, experiences or legacy of these soldiers and sailors. There are six men remembered on the Edinburgh memorial and it is only possible to speculate whether they were spurred on to enlist by political or religious conviction, or whether they were fleeing trouble or boredom at home. Other than their names appearing on regimental rolls, evidence is sorely lacking. Three decades on from the end of the war, the ambiguities, tensions and fissures that the war had brought were to be subsumed by the one positive outcome that Scots and Americans could now agree upon—emancipation. This accounts for the fact that although slavery as a cause and emancipation as a result of the war rarely made it into memorials in the United States, the issue would take center-stage on a monument intended for Scotland.
Consul Wallace Bruce
The individual responsible for bringing Lincoln to Scotland was a colorful character named Wallace Bruce. Bruce had arrived in Edinburgh as Consul in 1889 and seems to have been an ideal candidate for the appointment. Born in a small town in upstate New York in 1844, he was of the Civil War generation but did not volunteer for service and instead graduated with the Yale class of 1867. His obituary in the New York Times in 1914 describes him as an author, orator and poet and noted how often he had given his time to speaking engagements at memorial events hosted by veterans’ associations. Among his publications were travel books and collections of his poetry, wherein he often returned to Scottish themes. Scots-American connections and the memory of the Civil War were the two subjects upon which Bruce’s talents were most often called upon to commemorate in verse. Within his role as Consul, he entered heartily into similar work, accepting numerous invitations to speak at commemorative events. It was a chance encounter through his official role however, that would prove the inspiration for the monument that he called his “greatest poem” (“Wallace Bruce Dead”).
In the latter part of the dedication booklet for the memorial is a short chapter titled, “The Story of the Monument” (Lincoln Monument 42–46). The narrative opens on a destitute widow, Mrs. McEwan, calling at the American Consulate offices in the summer of 1890 in the hopes of securing her recently deceased husband’s army pension. Her husband had served as a sergeant in the Union army before returning to Scotland to marry and start a family; he later passed away in Edinburgh, clutching his service weapon. When Mrs. McEwan explained that her husband had been buried in a common grave and that she had no funds with which to mark the spot, this inspired Bruce to action. In July of 1892, Bruce raised the subject of a memorial in an informal discussion with his personal friend, Lord Provost Russell and the following day put his request in writing to the Town Council for a burial plot in Old Calton. With his ambitions for the project growing, the Consul had the idea to erect a statue and in August, he traveled to New York to publicly announce his intentions for a sculpture of ‘Lincoln Freeing the Slaves’ in Edinburgh. Bruce remained in the United States until November, calling on a list of illustrious names to request donations. A total of fifty men had donated $100, the list a veritable Who’s Who of ‘robber barons’ and the cream of the New York social circle; Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, William Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan and William Waldorf Astor (Lincoln Monument 47). The scale and cost of the project, as well as the influential men who supported it, indicated that the monument was assuming a more important status than merely a marker upon a grave.
Bruce chose an acquaintance of his, Union veteran and sculptor George Bissell, to cast the monument. The choices of design and content of the memorial are in stark contrast to the majority of Civil War memorials in the United States and instead, can be seen to speak specifically to Lincoln’s legacy as it was understood and celebrated in Scotland.
George Bissell’s Statue
The Edinburgh statue features Lincoln atop a podium and a freedman at the base who kneels by victorious furled flags and laurel wreaths. Around the bronze platform on which the President stands, a different word is engraved on each of the four sides, reading clockwise from the front; Emancipation, Education, Union, Suffrage. The names of the soldiers to whom the memorial is dedicated are engraved on the sides of the base, and read simply;
Sgt. Major John McEwan, Co. H, 65th Regt Illinois Vol. Infantry;
William L Duff, Lt Col., 2nd Illinois Regt of Artillery;
Robert Steedman, Co. E, 5th Regt Maine Infantry Volunteers;
James Wilkie, Co. C, 1st Michigan Cavalry;
Robert Ferguson, Co. F, 57th Regt New York Infantry Volunteers;
Alexander Smith, Co. C 66th. Regt New York Volunteer Infantry.
Typical of most American Civil War memorials, was the figure of an ordinary soldier, standing at ease. The omission of soldiers and the inclusion of a freedman in the Scottish statue moved the emphasis away from the men who had served the Union cause and instead asserted Lincoln’s legacy as The Great Emancipator. The precise depiction of the late President also bears consideration. In the late nineteenth century the simple act of rendering an image of Lincoln was highly politicized as it would be interpreted by an audience that was infused with notions of racial and social ‘types’, identifiable by appearance alone. For decades, Lincoln’s image had been constantly pulled in two directions. On the one hand, many Americans wanted to believe in the folk-hero Lincoln, the rail-splitter from the uncouth West who—through his own talents and ambition alone—became the savior of his country. Others wanted a Lincoln who could embody a mature, sophisticated America ready to operate on the world stage; a statesman, not an everyman (Schwartz 301–02).
In the Edinburgh sculpture then, Bissell, has clearly portrayed the ‘export’ Lincoln; the dignified, properly attired professional. The clothing is contemporary and flows in clean lines; the President strikes a stance found in classical portrayals of politicians; one leg slightly in front of the other and one arm bent behind the back, a man of action. In his right hand he clutches a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the title of which is just visible. The phrase engraved onto the front of the base is a quote from an 1864 letter from Lincoln to Governor Michael Hahn of Louisiana, in which he expresses his wish that extension of the franchise be made to a portion of the black male population.
It reads, “To preserve the jewel of Liberty in the framework of Freedom.” Again, rather than using a famous quote referring directly to the war, Bruce and Bissell have used a statement that underlines the memorial’s celebration of suffrage.
A New Era in U.S.-British Relations
The timing of Bruce’s project is key to understanding what Lincoln was to convey to a Scottish audience. In 1893 the first American Ambassador to Great Britain had received his commission; a new era of official acknowledgement of the importance in U.S.-British relations had begun. Despite a complex history, the rising financial giant and the great imperial power now had shared concerns and were entering a period when entente was seen as desirable. In this sense, the Edinburgh monument can be understood as more than simply a marker upon a grave but as a symbol of ‘gesture politics’ between U.S. Republicans and their British Liberal counterparts. As has been observed of British Liberal sentiment, within a few years of his death, “Lincoln had become a symbol” (Biagini 81). The American ‘secular saint’ was a potent political figure in Europe, and those who realized the importance of the burgeoning special relationship were eager to appoint him their envoy; the message he carried was that the American experiment brought freedom, wealth and opportunity.
The monument was crowned with the dedication ceremony and those invited to speak articulated what they felt Lincoln stood for in Scotland. In his opening dedicatory prayer, one Reverend Christie set the tone of the proceedings and introduced the themes that underpinned the unveiling. He celebrated the shared values, character and racial heritage of the transatlantic cousins, yet balanced this with a concern that positive relations are nevertheless tenuous and should be nurtured. He praised the outcome of the “recent conference” that had liberated millions and brought the states of the union closer together. Sir William Arrol then took the stand, echoing the point that this had been a battle fought and won for a universal cause, “There is one thing in Scotland that we have always been proud of, and that was our readiness to assist with and take part in any efforts for freedom and liberty wherever these were being made.” Bruce closed the ceremony by stating that it was an honor to place this monument to Lincoln, “the last great martyr in the cause of Anglo-Saxon Freedom” (Lincoln Monument 16) in Edinburgh, “the most beautiful city in the world” (Lincoln Monument 14–15). The statue was to be a symbolic statement of alliance based upon a selective interpretation of shared history.
In using the memorial, and the narrative of emancipation it conveys, as a touchstone from which to discuss themes of transatlantic alliance, it becomes clear that the aim of the architects was not merely commemorative. Using his official capacity as Consul and the unofficial backing of American financial giants, Bruce was able to use Lincoln as an unsullied example of the great and good within American political philosophy. Placing a venerating, classical statue of Lincoln on foreign shores brought to mind for participants the romantic myth of shared Anglo-Saxon antecedents, a shining example of democracy improved through education, and the ultimate republican model of the self-made man.
A Mediated Legacy
That Abraham Lincoln never left American shores in his lifetime makes study of his international legacy all the more interesting; his image, his impact, was not made through speeches or appearances, but has always been mediated through others. David Blight has written of Lincoln ‘theft’ throughout U.S. history; of the misappropriation of his words and image, and of the squabbles between opposing groups who claim his actions as their heritage. In this particular case it could be argued that although the President himself never sailed for Scotland, a bronze Lincoln was once press-ganged into service, in order to help those with a stake in the future of Anglo-American relations navigate the Atlantic.
- Biagini, Eugenio F. Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.Blackett, R.J.M. Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2001.
- Botsford, Robert J. Scotland and the American Civil War. 2 vols. Diss. Edinburgh University, 1955
- “George E. Bissell, Sculptor, Dies at 81.” New York Times 31 Aug. 1920. ProQuest. Web. 29 March 2016.
- Kelly, Patrick J. “The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of Civil War Memory.” Civil War History 49.3 (Sept. 2003) 254–80.
- Kennedy, David M, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. 15th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
- The Lincoln Monument, in Memory of Scottish-American Soldiers, Unveiled in Edinburgh, August 21, 1893. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1893. Archive.org. Web. 29 March 2016.
- Peters, Lorraine. “The Impact of the American Civil War on the Local Communities of Southern Scotland.” Civil War History 49.2 (June 2003): 133-152.
- Schwartz, Barry. “Iconography and Collective Memory: Lincoln’s Image in the American Mind.” Sociological Quarterly 32.3 (Autumn 1991): 301–19.
- “Wallace Bruce Dead.” New York Times 3 Jan. 1914. ProQuest. Web. 29 March 20116.
Originally published by the American Studies Journal 60 (2016), DOI 10.18422/60-05, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.