Not a cross, but a “cross-roads hand-board” – The 142nd Pennsylvania monument at Gettysburg
When visiting McPherson Ridge west of Gettysburg, travelers may easily notice the monument which honors the 142nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Its unique design stands out amid a vast sea of oftentimes similar-looking granite markers. Most assume it represents a cross, annually making its supposed Christian symbolism a popular subject of social media images each Easter Sunday.
However, documents covering the memorial’s design and dedication suggest that it depicts something entirely different.
Having been mustered into United States service in the late summer and early fall of 1862, the 142nd Pennsylvania participated in all of the Army of the Potomac’s major campaigns from Fredericksburg through Appomattox, as is indicated by the names of 17 battles on the Gettysburg monument. At that particular engagement on July 1, 1863, “We fought...for a short time, our men never flinching, except as they were mowed down by the terrible fire from front and flank,” recalled Col. Horatio Warren, who once commanded the unit.
Warren continued, “and then in sheer desperation we were ordered to charge, which we did, but were repulsed, and the remnant of the line that was left rallied round the brick Seminary, and there fought until we were nearly surrounded by the superior number that swarmed from every direction.” In a speech before his comrades, Capt. George Snowden added, “Forming a barricade in front of yonder Seminary you still faced outward and only when again outflanked did you slowly retire...through the town, fighting, resolute, defiant.”
A quarter-century later, survivors gathered at the same site, and held their inaugural regimental reunion on July 2, 1888, for the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. That same year, members of the 142nd Pennsylvania Regimental Association signed a contract with the Board of Commissioners on Gettysburg Monuments to establish a memorial on the battlefield. Curiously, according to Pvt. James MacLane, the initial “design of the monument selected by the regimental committee was, I am sorry to say, refused acceptance by the State Board of Commissioners,” striking “a severe blow to our committee, to myself and to others.” (Particulars concerning the controversial design appear to remain unknown.)
Nevertheless, the final agreement specified that the design symbolizes “A GRANITE GUIDE POST” with an “upright” and a “cross piece.” By the following summer, the monument was created by the Smith Granite Company out of blue granite from a quarry in Westerly, Rhode Island. The memorial cost $1,500 (approximately $40,400 in 2020) and was one of at least 53 Keystone State regimental markers paid for by the Commonwealth and dedicated on September 11 and 12, 1889, as part of the massive festival called Pennsylvania Day.
Locally, on September 10, the Gettysburg Compiler stated its strong approval of the design and explained the full idea behind its layout. “For entirely unique conception the monument of the 142d Pa. infantry, which Mr. Roach, of the Smith Company, is here to erect, heads the list,” the paper reported. “It will be a granite representation of a cross-roads hand-board and stand on the south side of the Springs road, where Reynolds avenue joins.”
In 1880s parlance, a “hand-board” served to provide directional instructions to travelers when they approached major thoroughfares at a crossroads, or hub of highways, running to and from multiple geographic directions. In essence, it was the 19th-century equivalent of a modern road sign.
According to a 1901 lecture delivered in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “Hand-boards were required to be put up at all points where the turnpike intersected cross roads, telling the names and distances of the places to which such roads led.” Likewise, in 1910, travelogue author William Riddle described an instance in which he “reached the ‘cross-roads,’ one finger of the hand-board pointing...to the right, the other, to the left.” (It remains to be seen whether this was the same William Riddle who served as an aide to Pennsylvania-born Maj. Gen. John Reynolds.)
The “cross-roads hand-board” concept has a few possible origins. First, it could have been an homage to Gettysburg’s status as a crossroads town, a characteristic often credited with drawing the United States and Confederate armies to do battle there in 1863. Secondly, perhaps it was a tribute to the western Pennsylvania crossroads communities that the men of the regiment called home.
Finally, it may have been an artistic replication of a sign directing battlefield visitors at what was in 1889 the intersection of Springs Road and Reynolds Avenue. In that regard, the spot would have been significant in the eyes of those who fought there. Today, though, aside from a sliver of modern Springs Avenue, the road does not exist any longer, nor does the once-popular Katalysine Springs Hotel to which it once led, starting in 1869.
Despite the “cross-roads hand-board” explanation, since the marker was constructed, visitors have generally not interpreted the monument’s design according to the artists’ original intentions. Rather than seeing a century-old road sign, veterans and Gettysburg aficionados alike (both then and now) have understandably visualized the aforementioned holy symbol of a crucifix.
As for veterans who interpreted it as such, in his address at the memorial’s dedication, Colonel Warren told the surviving veterans of the 142nd that the stone image of the empty cross was dedicated “to the sacred memory of our brave and faithful associates, who...did more than we, for, as Providence would have it, they gave up their lives that their country might live.” When they first arrived at Gettysburg in 1863, Warren said that these men and their leaders “determined to give battle, and trust to Providence for the consequences.” Some men, “by the kind providence of an all-wise God, were spared,” he said, but the monument truly stands as “a fitting and eloquent testimonial” to those who died there.
According to Warren, the monument’s cross shape represented “their kindness and liberality...upon this sacred soil," where “our fallen comrades...were, by the casualties of war, transferred from our muster rolls to the muster roll on high.” As such, it was necessary and proper that “their comrades...meet and plant fresh flowers on their graves, that the noble sacrifice made by them for their country may be kept fresh and green in the hearts of a grateful republic.”
Warren's religious language was clearly influenced by notions of Christ-like selflessness and generosity. In turn, Warren predicted the monument “will impress our children...with the fact that their fathers dared to die that their country might live”—a clear allusion to personal sacrifice by death for a larger cause than oneself. In fact, he said, few could properly understand or “have a right to compare with the 142d in the extent of its sacrifice.”
Lt. John Miller added to the theme when he declared, “It is fitting that we meet on this field where so many comrades have attested their valor and gave their lives [as] a willing sacrifice to their country and flag.” Pvt. D.J. Horner did the same in his assessment “that their blood was shed in a righteous cause, and that out of the sacrifice so nobly made by them their country has been saved, its institutions preserved and the domain of freedom enlarged.” Just as casualties of the Civil War perished for the original American sin of slavery, this dramatic sentiment is best visually exemplified by the cross upon which Jesus was crucified for the sins of all mankind, and from which he rose again, according to Christian doctrine.
For an added layer of religious symbolism, the “cross-roads hand-board” monument to the 142nd Pennsylvania stands within sight of United Lutheran Seminary—a nearly 200-year-old training ground for future ministers, on the campus of which the veterans assembled for their ceremony and orations.
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 “History of the Regiment by Col. H.N. Warren,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Two Reunions of the 142d Regiment, Pa. Vols. (Buffalo, NY: The Courier Company, 1890), 22; “Address of Captain George R. Snowden,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Two Reunions of the 142d, 52.  “142D PENNSYLVANIA MONUMENT,” Gettysburg National Military Park Library, Pennsylvania Monuments, 115th Pa. Infantry-143rd Pa. Infantry, E475.53.P422, PA 115th-143rd; “Address of Lieutenant John V. Miller,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Two Reunions of the 142d, 58.  “142D PENNSYLVANIA MONUMENT,” Gettysburg National Military Park Library.  “Battlefield Notes,” Gettysburg Compiler (Gettysburg, PA), Sept. 10, 1889, 3.  “The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike,” in Papers Read Before the Lancaster County Historical Society. October 4, and November 1, 1901 (Lancaster, PA: The New Era, 1901), vol. 6, no. 1, 122; William Riddle, Cherished Memories of Old Lancaster-Town and Shire (Lancaster, PA: Intelligencer Printing House, 1910), 147. Credit is due to my colleague, Rob Williams, for directing me to the Riddle account.  “Address of Colonel H.N. Warren,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Two Reunions of the 142d, 21, 23, 24, 47.  “Address of Lieutenant John V. Miller,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Two Reunions of the 142d, 59; “Address of Private D.J. Horner,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Two Reunions of the 142d, 60.