Many monuments commemorate historic events or the lives of the men and women who shaped them. Just as meaningful, however, are monuments to individuals who sacrificed life or limb in the otherwise routine performance of their jobs or daily activities. This is the story of my encounter with the latter kind of monument.
Last year, while volunteering for MTC in Greenwood Cemetery, I took a short break to wander the rows of tombs, some of which were erected by benevolent societies and similar organizations to attend to the burial of deceased members. I paused at one such tomb, apparently erected by Mississippi Fire Co. No.2. known as the “Tomb of Mississippi Fire Company No. 2” One wall was so weathered the names of those interred were illegible. But the wall facing the opposite direction listed two names, Daniel Woodruff and William McLeod, and the notation they died March 17, 1854 as the result of a fire at the corner of Magazine and Natchez streets.
I had recently finished reading Queen of the South, the transcribed journal of Thomas Wharton, Superintendent of construction of the New Orleans Custom House, published by HNOC in 1999. His diary covers the years 1853 to early 1862 and paints a detailed picture of life in New Orleans in the mid-19th century. One ever-present aspect of that life was the occurrence of fires, large and small, across the city. As remains true today, the largest fires became spectacles, with citizens who were asleep a few minutes earlier now gathered at the site of the disaster to gawk, speculate and catch up on happenings in their neighborhood. While admiring the tomb in Greenwood Cemetery, I realized the fire that killed Woodruff and McLeod occurred while Wharton was keeping his journal.
When I returned home, I retrieved my copy of Queen of the South and found an entry for March 16, 1854 describing the fire. (A footnote indicates Woodruff and McLeod actually died March 17, when the ruins collapsed on them.) I discovered Wharton had been an indirect witness to the fire, and described it as follows:
“I heard the fire bells in the night but had no idea of the
extent of the conflagration until I went down this morning,
no less than 12 large and valuable stores at and near the
corner of Magazine and Natchez. The ruins surround
the Canal Bank …
The vapor from the smoldering wreck filled the air to a great
distance in the direction of the New Custom House the
whole day …”
In this manner the tomb in Greenwood Cemetery (which lacked details of the tragedy) was supplemented by Wharton’s journal (which described the fire but omitted the names of the deceased) to paint a fuller picture of this antebellum tragedy. Together, they illustrate the sacrifice that elevates an ordinary individual to an everyday hero, with that story passed down to successive generations. What better purpose could any monument serve?
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