Central Park is an escape from the bustling city—and a place to rest, relax, and, sometimes, reflect. In honor of Memorial Day and the many veterans who have served our country, we take a special look at the Park’s monuments that commemorate their service.
One of the most well-known of the Park’s memorials is the Maine Monument, which stands at the Park’s busiest entrance: its southwest corner. The sculpture commemorates the 260 American sailors who perished in 1898 when the USS Maine exploded while in harbor in Havana, Cuba. It’s the largest and most complex memorial in the Park—featuring a gilded bronze sculpture of Columbia Triumphant in a seashell chariot.
The evolution of our armed services
Today, we’re familiar with the term “National Guard.” Few people know that this term started with the unit memorialized as the 7th Regiment, which lost 58 members during the Civil War, and is honored in Central Park. The history of the unit started in 1806 and continues to this day; its memorial was dedicated in 1873.
The term “National Guard” was coined to honor a Frenchman, Marquis de Lafayette (portrayed in the musical Hamilton), who commanded “Garde National de Paris” during the French Revolution. The American concept of a National Guard later expanded to become the state militia system as we now know it.
Change of plans
In the original plan for Central Park, the beloved Sheep Meadow was the Parade Ground, a requirement of the competition held to create a design for the Park. The winners of the competition, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, didn’t want military activity in the Park, so they made the area small and tucked it away on the west side.
The Park’s Board of Commissioners quickly realized that militia drills involved large numbers of armed, working-class men marching through the landscape and began issuing permits only under pressure from higher State authorities. In 1864, a flock of 150 sheep was introduced to heighten the pastoral feeling of the area; after militia marched onto the meadow without a permit and chased the sheep away, the State Legislature banned military activities in the Park. The beautiful, pastoral Sheep Meadow has been empty ever since.
In 1873, Bethesda Terrace was dedicated to the memory of Union Naval veterans of the Civil War. Years later after World War II, the pathway leading down the west side of the Terrace was officially designated “Navy Walk,” and some trees were planted alongside a commemorative plaque.
A few blocks south, the second-oldest structure in the Park—the Arsenal—holds a wealth of history both military and civilian. It was built in 1848 and served as a home for the state militia; it was also the original site of the American Museum of Natural History.
Each year on Memorial Day, the Conservancy honors those who have served our country with a special walking tour through the south end of the Park. Stopping along the way at notable sites like the Maine Monument, the former Parade Ground, the New York City Memorial Flagpole, Navy Terrace, the Arsenal, and several others, visitors learn about the evolving presence of military history throughout Central Park. Join our guides for a walk around the Park’s popular South End and learn more about the rich history memorialized there.
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