A statue ded­i­cated to Hills­dale’s Civil War sol­diers occupies the center of Kresge Plaza.
Vir­ginia Aabram | Collegian

The space between Lane and Kendall Halls tells a story. You may have heard it when you were on tour as a prospective student, but since then it has pos­sibly faded from memory. Famil­iarity can breed for­get­fulness. But it’s a good story, and it war­rants remem­brance between Vet­erans Day and Thanksgiving. 

The three statues that adorn the cir­cular plaza are part of the larger Liberty Walk, but together they recount the American Civil War in a moving and immersive work of art. 

At the center of the plaza is the young soldier, sculpted by the influ­ential Lorado Taft. This is the oldest statue on the campus, ded­i­cated in 1895 by those who lost friends and brothers to the bat­tle­fields of Penn­syl­vania and Georgia. Nearly 500 of Hillsdale’s young men went south to fight in the “war of the rebellion.” No college that was then regarded as “western” sent a higher per­centage into the con­flict. More than 60 of them never returned. As their class­mates read dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — in Horace’s words, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” — they acted them out instead. 

With the flag in hand, he looks boldly to the South as if daring the rebels to try again. In a circle of grass, he stands on a pedestal that lifts him higher than any of the other campus statues. He’s untouchable in a way the other statues aren’t. George Wash­ington, Thomas Jef­ferson, and Winston Churchill rep­resent statesmen who offer great but com­pli­cated legacies. The soldier demands only gratitude.

The statue of Fred­erick Dou­glass looks know­ingly at the soldier.
Vir­ginia Aabram | Collegian

Looking at the soldier with per­petual grat­itude is the statue of Fred­erick Dou­glass, sculpted by Bruce Wolfe and ded­i­cated in 2017. Hillsdale College hosted the famed abo­li­tionist orator and news­paper editor in 1863. In the plaza, the former slave rep­re­sents the purpose of the war. He gazes at the soldier with a look of deter­mi­nation that also rec­og­nizes the young man’s sac­rifice, which made African-Amer­icans like him free. 

Dou­glass’ fiery and focused per­son­ality comes through. He stands stern and straight, but caught mid-step as though pacing during one of his stirring speeches. The book in his hands recalls his ded­i­cation to the written word, which he secretly taught himself while still a slave. 

Though Dou­glass gave the keynote speech at the ded­i­cation of Eman­ci­pation Memorial in Wash­ington D.C. — a cite of recent con­tro­versy — he also crit­i­cized the mon­ument in a news­paper: “The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a mon­ument rep­re­senting the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.” That’s a good description of his likeness on our campus.

Abraham Lincoln is depicted as bent with sorrow over the war.
Vir­ginia Aabram | Collegian

Com­pleting the Civil War trinity is the man who bore the psy­cho­logical weight of the war that caused so many deaths but won freedom and life for mil­lions. Abraham Lincoln, sculpted by Anthony Fru­dakis and ded­i­cated in 2009, looks at the ground, hands held behind his back. He bows his head in sorrow, but perhaps not regret. He doesn’t look at the soldier, but we can guess that the young man’s fate fills his thoughts. Lincoln was famously melan­cholic, and may have suf­fered from depression while he con­sidered the costs and rewards of fighting a war to keep a nation from breaking apart. The soldier was the cost, and the freedom of black Amer­icans such as Dou­glass was the reward.

The interplay between these three statues creates a mon­ument to the spir­itual struggle that made the Civil War both nec­essary and tragic. It rec­og­nizes the dignity of every human person, as well as the price of putting this recog­nition into action. It gave freedom to Dou­glass and bur­dened Lincoln with duty — and demanded a pro­found sac­rifice from the nameless soldier, who got a memorial instead of a graduation.