George J. Langsdale · 2007
By James Philip Fadely
The Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which honors Hoosier veterans of the Civil War, stands at the center of Indianapolis as the iconic symbol of Indiana’s capital city. While it is now a widely known and appreciated memorial, prominently located on the Circle at the heart of Alexander Ralston’s 1821 plan for the city, the monument had a surprisingly long and complicated early history, coming to fruition primarily through the efforts of one man: George J. Langsdale.
The man who became the driving force behind the monument’s construction was born on November 25, 1837, in Indianapolis, in a house on East Washington Street, directly opposite the old Marion County Courthouse. When Langsdale was only six years old, his father died and he was sent to live with his uncle and grandfather at Greenwood in Gallatin County, Kentucky. He returned to Indianapolis by the age of twelve, when he was reading copy for Austin H. Brown, the owner of the Indianapolis Sentinel.
Langsdale attended Northwestern Christian College, now Butler University, and took a course in a business college. Afterward, he taught at schools in Indiana.
A man of action and adventure, Langsdale, at the age of 21, accompanied a wagon train out of Saint Louis to New Mexico. Upon his return to Indianapolis, his health failed and he traveled to Minnesota, coming back home in the autumn of 1860. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Langsdale volunteered for service but was rejected because of his health. The next year, however, he raised a company of the Third Cavalry and in May 1862 was sworn in as first lieutenant. Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton used the company to help suppress the Knights of the Golden Circle in Indiana for the next year. The company also took part in the chase after Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, who made his famous raid through southern Indiana in 1863. Lieutenant Langsdale and six other men stayed in the chase to the end.
Following Morgan’s capture, Langsdale was put in charge of the Confederate prisoners. He took time away from the war to return home to marry Mary Elizabeth Roberts of Indianapolis on August 13, 1863. Later that year, he went to the front with his company and saw grueling service in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina. Accounts mention that his health was “utterly ruined” during this long campaign and that he never completely recovered. Finally, he had no choice but to give up and go into the hospital after the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga. In endorsing his resignation from the military in November 1864, a superior officer wrote: “Lieutenant Langsdale has been one of the most efficient officers in the service, and in the last year, when he should have been in the hospital, has remained in the saddle simply by force of his strong will.”
Upon his return from the war, Langsdale and his family moved to a farm in Sullivan County where he assisted in editing the Sullivan Union newspaper during the campaign of 1866. The following year, Langsdale moved to Greencastle and bought an interest in the Putnam Republican Banner, along with Samuel E. Tilford. The paper was conducted under the joint management and ownership of Tilford and Langsdale, with Langsdale in the editorial chair. Langsdale acquired full ownership of the paper in July of the same year and changed its name to the Greencastle Banner. To his credit, the paper took on new life and strength and circulation grew. One account described Langsdale as “a very strong man intellectually and well equipped for the editorship.” For the next 23 years, until he sold it in 1890 to Millard J. Beckett, the Banner was considered one of the best and most influential county newspapers in the state.
During his time with the Banner, Langsdale and five other Civil War veterans met each evening in his print shop to talk over the events of the day, to plan for the future, to swap yarns about the war, and to roundly denounce the rebels and all Democrats. Becoming something of a small-town institution, they eventually acquired the nickname of the Banner Alley Sextet. Many of their ideas found their way onto the editorial pages of the Banner. On a wintry night in 1875, Langsdale proposed to the sextet the idea of launching a movement to erect a monument on the Circle in Indianapolis to honor Hoosier veterans of the last war.
A half century later, J. A. Jackson, a member of the sextet, recalled the occasion: “I remember as if it were yesterday that night that Langsdale sent word to all of us to be at the Banner office at 10 o’clock one night. Well, we were all there, and in the dark topsy-turvy printing shop of his, he unfolded to us his dream of the memorial to the civil war veterans. He laid before us his plans for making a material monument out of that dream. So carried away were we with his magnetism, his intense interest, that we talked until 2 o’clock in the morning and went home thrilled with the vision of the mighty state memorial, but realizing that before us stretched months and perhaps years of dauntless striving toward the idea of Langsdale’s dreams.” With this inspired beginning, Langsdale went to work to make the monument a reality. Using his newspaper as his voice, Langsdale editorialized early on: “It would seem that they are in absolute need of a soldiers’ monument over at Indianapolis, and that quickly. Let it be erected in the most public place and then the school children massed around it and told for what the Union soldier which it typifies fought and died. It would also be well to tell something of the tragic events through which he passed and the courses which led thereto.”
In August 1875 Langsdale presented his plan for the memorial to the first soldiers’ reunion in Indianapolis. The soldiers at the gathering received the idea with great enthusiasm, forming an association to raise funds to build a monument in the capital city under Langsdale’s direction. By most accounts, this association found funding to be difficult, drawing only $1,000 in donations. The group then turned the project over to the Indiana Department of the Grand Army of the Republic, the major Civil War veterans’ organization.
Langsdale presented the first actual plans for a memorial to the GAR. The veterans’ group took up the issue at its annual encampment in 1884 and passed a resolution for a Civil War monument in Indianapolis. The GAR appointed a state soldiers’ monument committee, led by Langsdale. With the prodding of the GAR, both the Democratic and Republican conventions of 1886 endorsed the project. By 1887, after three years of effort, the organization had raised $23,380 for the monument. By this time, it was clear to the GAR that the project was too large even for its organization and that the state of Indiana needed to step in and take responsibility.
On March 3, 1887, the legislature passed, and Governor Isaac P. Gray signed, a bill creating a commission to build a monument “on the ground commonly known as Circle Park.” The members of the original commission included Langsdale, who was elected its first president by acclamation. J. A. Jackson, the surviving member of the Banner Alley Sextet, many years later, gave Langsdale credit for the monument bill: “We who knew Langsdale have a feeling that there would never have been a monument in the Circle if it had not been for his thought of the memorial, coupled with his efforts to put the project over. And he created a sentiment in those days many years before the bill passed the legislature . . . that made its passage possible.”
Once the monument commission was established, the project moved forward steadily, but never without contention and controversy. Soon, the board of monument commissioners, with Langsdale at the helm, held an international design competition. In January 1888 the commissioners chose a desi
gn submitted by Bruno Schmitz of Berlin titled “Symbol of Indiana.” On August 22, 1889, the monument’s cornerstone was laid in elaborate ceremonies that featured President Benjamin Harrison. Langsdale played a prominent role in the cornerstone ceremonies, marching in the processional of dignitaries and making a statement on behalf of the monument commissioners. He spoke eloquently about his vision for the monument: “If completed according to the design this monument will be the noblest structure on the continent, and there will be no purely soldiers’ monument in the world its equal.”
With his wife ill with the cancer that eventually claimed her life, Langsdale resigned from the board of monument commissioners in 1894. By that time, he had dedicated almost twenty years of his life to making the monument a reality. Eight years later, on May 15, 1902, the monument was formally dedicated. By December 1903 Langsdale’s health had deteriorated badly because of a heart condition. On December 26 he lost consciousness and died at 2 p.m. the following day. At the time of the monument’s dedication, a Hoosier journalist, Charles R. Lane, who worked on the Indianapolis Journal, paid tribute to Langsdale for his efforts on the monument’s behalf, noting: “While it is probable that no mind dared to conceive so magnificent and so costly a shaft at so long before, it is not improper to suggest that no loftier ideal lodged in the heart and mind of any citizen of Indiana that that which made the monument the dearest object of George J. Langsdale’s dreams.”
Reprinted from Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, Vol. 18, Number 1, Winter 2006.