The Shaw Monument; A Testament to Folly

A word to the wise: if you’re going to erect a monument to one of world history’s watershed moments, don’t do it like “Old John” Shaw did. Otherwise critics might similarly pan your work. “A monument crude and unsightly,” one observer said of his masterpiece. “A dishonor to beauty and art.” Another called it “an artistic crime and architectural nightmare.” Still another, simply, an “embarrassment.”

You can judge for yourself how short on looks Shaw’s work was, whether a hundred-year sentence of being overgrown and abandoned in the woods was appropriate for those beastly shortcomings. But if there’s one lesson from this comedy of errors, it’s this: a monument doesn’t gain significance by virtue of existence. One with a quirky back story, however, is a different matter, and in the end, that may be the Shaw monument’s savior.

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A grainy image of the Shaw Monument. The Tacoma Times, 7/4/1911. Library of Congress.

What was this homely pillar that so offended aesthetic sensibilities? It began with a good idea. A Civil War veteran and Superintendent of Yorktown National Cemetery, Shaw wanted to mark the exact spot of the British surrender at Yorktown, an event so earth-shattering that hardened soldiers became emotional and the band struck up “The World Turned Upside Down.” What red-blooded American wouldn’t support a monument on the very ground our nation was born?

Unfortunately, the plan sputtered from the get go. For one, Shaw made the monument in 1895 with his own meager resources and went the DIY route–a 15-1/2-foot obelisk of recycled bricks covered with concrete stucco. He garnished his creation with a handy-dandy interpretive sign reading “Spot where Cornwallis Surrendered to Washington Oct. 19th, 1781.” Except that was wrong; Cornwallis called in sick so the seconds-in-command carried out the ceremony.

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The Shaw Monument. Courtesy National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park.

One tiny thing more, too. Shaw’s monument was in the wrong place. Not even close, in fact. To be fair, better evidence wouldn’t emerge for decades proving beyond a doubt that the surrender occurred elsewhere. Nevertheless, the reasoning behind the monument’s placement—indeed, its very existence—turned out to be in error.

The monument never had a prayer. No one stepped in to care for it after Shaw’s death in 1907. A park superintendent in 1934 moved the orphaned obelisk from the overgrown spot where Shaw mislaid it to an out-of-the-way patch of woods. For decades curious explorers sought out the monument that couldn’t get any love. There it stayed until 2013 when Colonial National Historical Park Superintendent Dan Smith had it moved to a shelter in a maintenance yard to await a new home outside of the National Park Service’s purview.

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The Shaw monument in the Colonial National Historical Park maintenance yard. Courtesy NPS, Colonial National Historical Park.

The Shaw monument—or part of it anyway—will likely have a new home soon; through May 30, Smith is accepting proposals to take ownership of the monument. He expects only a few serious overtures. I’ll update this post when a decision is made.

Update: After considering various proposals, NPS officials gave the top piece of the Shaw Monument–about 28 inches–to York County, and that section now resides at the York County Historical Museum. The rest of the monument has been destroyed, ground into powder for walkways around Yorktown’s Custom House.

How many humble memorials lay on the American landscape forgotten and crumbling in the forest? How many life works were never given a second chance? The Shaw monument encountered both, and, impossibly, what was meant to commemorate unprecedented achievement turned out to be an enduring testament to man’s folly.

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Tribute to John Shaw and his monument in the Times-Dispatch 11/3/1911. Library of Congress.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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2 Responses to The Shaw Monument; A Testament to Folly

  1. Bonnie says:

    I am with the Museum and would like to get in touch with you about the Monument and a former Union Town resident.

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