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The first monument in the world dedicated to journalists killed in combat was built in 1896 by George Alfred Townsend (30 January 1841 - 15 April 1914), a war correspondent during the American Civil War, and a later novelist. Townsend's interest in writing began to show when he first published stories and poems in high school newspapers but his professional career only started in 1860 when he worked full-time as a news editor for a number of newspapers in Philadelphia and onward to New York the following year to cover the Civil War. He had the claim of being the only correspondent present on 31 March 1865 at the Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, to report on the Union Army's decisive victory. He is also considered to have been the youngest correspondent of the war. In 1865, from Washington, D.C. he covered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the capture of John Wilkes Booth and had by then become a well-recognized journalist and popular lecturer. He wrote many books, columns, articles and letters using a variety of pen names, but his favourite was "Gath", from which was formed by adding an "h" to his initials and was inspired by a biblical passage: (II Samuel 1:20) "Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askalon."
Although he remained living in the nation's capital for nearly two decades, in 1884 Townsend purchased a tract of land on South Mountain, Maryland, and established an estate, which he named Gapland. This area was particularly attractive to him because of its proximity to the Antietam Battlefield and Crampton's Gap, which witnessed a portion of the Battle of South Mountain, the first major battle of the Civil War fought in Maryland that included about 6,100 killed, wounded, and missing. It was on this estate that he built two years later the "War Correspondents Memorial Arch" - a permanent memorial to newspaper correspondents, artists, and photographers of the Civil War. Standing 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide, the Arch's unusual design was inspired by two Hagerstown structures: the former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad passenger depot which utilized a horseshoe-shape arch, and the Antietam Fire Co. Station No. 2 which incorporated a crenelated tower. Names of 157 men from the North and the South, who documented the Civil War, are inscribed in the east façade. The main Moorish arch is sixteen feet high built of Hummelstown purple stone, flanked to its north by a square tower with a cornerstone inscribed "Sept. 14, 62 - 96", for the date of the Battle of Crampton's Gap. A niche on the face of the tower holds a statue of Pan with the traditional pipes, and he is either half drawing or sheathing a Roman sword. Inset terra cotta busts are on both sides of the main arch over shields. On the left, the bust represents electricity, with the inscription "SPEED". On the right is the bust representing poetry, with the inscription "HEED". Above the main arch are three nine foot tall Roman arches made of limestone from Creek Battlefield, Virginia, representing Description, Depiction and Photography. Above these are inset two terra cotta horse heads. The unusual memorial was dedicated by Governor Lloyd Lowndes (1845-1905) on 16 October 1896 and in 1904 was turned over to the U.S. War Department. The memorial was repaired during the Great Depression sometime between 1934 and 1936 and in 1949, it was deeded to the State of Maryland to be administered as a State Park by the Department of Forests and Parks and continues to be maintained by the National Park Service. The estate was renamed Gathland State Park, using Townsend's popular pen name. This memorial remained the sole memorial dedicated to war correspondents for a period of 90 years until the "War Correspondents Memorial" oak tree was unveiled by the National Press Club at Arlington National Cemetery on 7 October 1986 "in memory of journalists who died while covering wars or conflicts for the American people." Exactly two decades later, on 7 October 2006, a "Memorial to Reporters" was inaugurated in Bayeux, France to commemorate all those reporters and journalists killed while carrying out their work across the world since 1944.
On this day, 16 October 2021, we commemorate more than 170 years since the birth of George Alfred Townsend, more than 159 years since the Battle of South Mountain, and mark the 125th anniversary of the unveiling of the War Correspondents Memorial Arch in South Mountain, Maryland.
André M. Levesque