Caring for our military monuments on Memorial Day

World War I doughboy gets a soap and water bath on a chilly morning in Williamsport

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, among other pronouncements, declared Memorial Day to fall on the last Monday of May, beginning in 1971. The new federal holiday evolved from Decoration Day, observed on May 30 following the end of the Civil War, and now honors the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in all American wars. While many traditional Memorial Day parades, ceremonies, charity runs, flyovers, and other celebrations will be either virtual or cancelled this year, the Maryland Historical Trust continues to honor Marylanders who served by virtue of a program of conservation and maintenance of many of the state’s military monuments. 

Flame polishing the Spanish American War cannon in Hagerstown. The bronze is heated to help the wax adhere to the surface.

Since 1989, the Governor’s Commission on Maryland Military Monuments, staffed by MHT, has conserved more than 100 of the 477 military monuments in the state.  Monument types and styles vary widely – from artist commissioned limestone, granite or marble obelisks to cannons atop pedestals, steles with plaques or tablets adorned with statuary above or more contemporary plazas replete with low walls for seating.  Ownership of the monuments is varied as well, some are county or municipality owned, while others belong to churches or the local American Legion Post.  The Commission, comprised of 17 citizens with knowledge in history, conservation, historic preservation and sculpture conservation and appointed by the Governor, currently oversees conservation and maintenance on about 60 monuments, grouped into four groups by geographic region.  

Tools of the conservator’s trade include a variety of waxes and soft brushes.

The Commission established a program of cyclical maintenance to care for and preserve the monuments, since bronze sculpture and tablets in an outdoor environment are exposed to particulates in the atmosphere, which settle onto and corrode the surfaces. Bronze is susceptible to becoming pitted and uneven, particularly in urban and industrial areas. Corrosion may follow water runoff patterns over the surface, forming streaks of light green and black, possibly damaging marble and even granite in the process. To respect the historic integrity of the monuments, the Commission follows a minimal and reversible treatment program, typically water cleaning of the bronze, followed by the application of a specialized wax to the heated metal. The wax darkens the bronze, creating an economical and maintainable coating that offers weather protection. 

Detail of bronze plaque after treatment of washing, waxing and flame polishing. World War I Memorial, Keedysville

A small group of 15 to 17 bronze monuments and tablets are conserved each year, so that a fairly consistent cycle of cleaning and waxing can be maintained every four years.  This year, under COVID-19 restrictions, we are working on a group in Western Maryland, starting in Washington County.  After a delayed start due to COVID, we have finished work on six monuments in Hagerstown, Keedysville and Williamsport in time for Memorial Day.      

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