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Tower expresses ‘guts and grief’ of community after Civil War

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 February 2014 at 12:00 am

Photos  by Tom Rivers – In the mid-1970s, the community launched a “Save The Tower” campaign to make repairs to the Civil War memorial. Here is one of the buttons that was used as a fund-raiser.

The tower at Mount Albion Cemetery was built as a memorial for the nearly 500 Civil War soldiers from the community who perished in the war.

Orleans County Historian Bill Lattin holds a memorial created for Major Gen. George Gordon Meade. Residents in the Civil War era seemed obsessed with death and mourning, Lattin said.

ALBION – Other communities put obelisks or bronze statues of soldiers on blocks in the town square as memorials to the men who died in the Civil War.

Orleans County considered putting a monument on the Courthouse Lawn as a memorial to the nearly 500 people who died in the war from Orleans. The monument probably would have been an obelisk, County Historian Bill Lattin said during a lecture Thursday at GCC.

But community leaders in the 1870s would settle on a different tribute and location. They opted to build a 68-foot-high tower at the highest point of Mount Albion Cemetery.

The Orleans County Monument Association raised $3,000 for the project. That left the tower about half done. It secured $2,000 more to finish the job. The tower was dedicated on July 4, 1876, the 100th anniversary of the country.

It was built 33 years after the cemetery opened. Mount Albion is a rural cemetery, designed in a park-like setting. Mount Albion was intended to be “a mansion for the dead,” Lattin said, quoting one of the cemetery leaders during a Sept. 7, 1843 dedication ceremony.

The tower was built in the Gothic Revival style. It fits the Victorian flavor of the cemetery. In that era, people were “obsessed with death,” Lattin said, due the heavy losses of the Civil War and the many infant deaths.

“They were obsessed with death because it was so commonplace,” Lattin told a packed room Thursday as part of GCC Civil War lecture series.

He showed artwork from the era that showed grieving widows and orphans at the graves of soldiers. Lattin showed a tear catcher, a long thin glass bottle that was used to catch and hold tears that would then be sprinkled on the grave of a loved one.

He showed a homemade memorial created for Maj. General George Gordon Meade. Lattin purchased it from an antique store. It includes Meade’s portrait surrounded by a circle of symbols, including grapes that represent Christ and a butterfly for the Resurrection.

After the Civil War, Orleans County residents needed to express their sorrow for the 463 who died from Orleans at a time when it had 23,000 people, about half the current population.

This blank ribbon was worn by a member of the Grand Army of the Republic to a funeral for a fellow GAR member.

The tower was built with Medina sandstone ashlars, which weren’t cut smoothly. That gave it a rough appearance. Inside the tower, the names of the dead were all carved in nine marble slabs.

The tower is more than a Medina sandstone marvel, a 68-foot-high landmark in a small town. The tower is a symbol and expression of “guts and grief,” Lattin said.

The war cut short the lives of nearly 500 people in Orleans, depriving families of husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

The families of the dead “suffered terrible unrelenting grief,” Lattin said.

The tower proved an attraction, drawing 1,000 people on many Sundays in the summer. They would climb to the observation deck.

About a hundred years after it was built, the community raised $20,000 to repair the tower. Lattin was one of the leaders of the “Save The Tower” effort, which included enthusiastic support from high school students. Lattin showed buttons and brochures from that effort, which culminated with the tower being rededicated on July 4, 1976.

He knows many romances have blossomed at the tower, which has been the site for many marriage proposals. Today, the tower may not be viewed as a symbol of grief.

“I think we can look at it as comforting,” he said.