Some notes on brass

My daddy, now 90, entertains us with an endless scroll of family stories, and I had never heard this one until recently. One year, when he was a boy, he rode his father’s horse in the Confederate Memorial Day parade up Broad in Augusta, Ga., augusta-2a city that his Cumming forebears had co-founded and helped develop. This would’ve been the 1930s. When the horse reached the towering Confederate Memorial Monument it stopped. Uh-oh. Everybody knows what it means when a horse stops in a parade. This time it was a liquid stream that came, and kept coming, ostentatiously spattering the base of the monument, leaving the crowds aghast. It was such a lavish performance, the horse seemed almost to be making a statement.

I recently saw that same 1878 monument from the window of a tour bus going through my ancestral home. The inscription at the bottom says: “No nation rose so white and fair, None fell so pure of crime.” White? Pure of crime? I thought it was a strange word choice.

But you see wording like that on a lot of Confederate memorials – purity, honor, unsullied devotion, as if to emphasize instead of just a loving memory, Yes, we lost, but there’s no guilt to be exculpated. Yesterday, I discovered an echo of that in the round brass plaques held in the double gate of our altar rail. The one on the left says TO THE MEMORY OF William Nelson Pendleton, D.D., Brigadier General, C.S.A., CHIEF OF ARTILLERY, ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, 1861-1865. On the right, a matching lozenge reads: FROM FRIENDS AND FELLOW SOLDIERS IN TESTIMONY OF HIS DEVOTION TO DUTY AND UNSULLIED PURITY OF CHARACTER. 1902.pendleton-plaque

I know a little about William Nelson Pendleton. He was this church’s longest-serving rector, from 1853 till his death 1883 (minus those years mentioned above, when he was away at war). He was a mathematics professor at West Point, founder and headmaster of Episcopal High in Alexandria, a scholar of both science and Christianity, a close friend of Robert E. Lee, and an advocate and organizer of education for blacks in this area after the Civil War. His funeral was the first service ever held in our current sanctuary, and it was packed to the balcony. Pendleton’s energy and intellect in the life in the church and in civil society are well documented in George M. Brooke Jr.’s history of our church. Yet what is inscribed in our sanctuary honors only his service as artillery general, and the unsullied purity of his character.

It’s a tiny inscription that I had never noticed before.

There is much bigger and more beautiful brass work around the sanctuary with no Roman-Stoic references to the War. Most magnificent are the grand eagle of the lectern and the ornate symbols of the four evangelists in the filigree around the pulpit. Those are memorials to the families of William Preston Johnston and of Col. William Gilham, two men who taught, respectively, at Washington & Lee and VMI.

eagle-wingThe lovely brass work throughout the chancel has grown tarnished and in some place, such as in the feathers of the eagle, clotted with Brasso that should not have been used. For about two years now, Woody Sadler and Mo Littlefield have been quietly researching how to restore and save this legacy in brass. They have been working with Steve Roy, the New York-based master of brass artwork who has restored the bronze statues of Cyrus McCormick, Francis Smith, and “Stonewall” Jackson on our neighboring campuses. Woody and Mo have secured an $11,000 matching grant from the Gadsden Trust, a $5,000 grant from a Virginia-based family foundation called the Titmus Foundation, and enough pledges from several other parishioners (one of them my generous mother-in-law Avis Waring) to reach the $22,000 that Steve Roy originally bid two years ago.

The work is not only cleaning and restoring, but also adding a finishing lacquer that should keep the brass as bright as new, never needing polish again. This means the brass will be gorgeous and radiant for at least the remainder of this century. . .unless someone tries to use Brasso on it. Note to Future: Please don’t put polish on it, ever. That could ruin the finish.


Steve Roy, brass-restoration craftsman, examining the problem.

Steve Roy was looking over the brass on Friday with Mo and me, to come up with a new estimate. Before, he wanted to take the brass up to his New York foundry. This time, he’s looking at setting up a tent outside the church for a couple of weeks to do the work there, and perhaps segment the work to give us options to keep the cost down.

In any case, we should have some radiant brass by Christmas. Laus Deo!

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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