I with uncovered head
Salute the sacred dead
Who went and return not
“Mourning Victory.” This is what sculptor Daniel Chester French called his beautiful memorial to three brothers who perished in the Civil War. What a profound and intriguing title. Today it is more commonly known as the “Melvin Memorial.” A somewhat more bland title. I would ask the reader to consider the former and all the complex irony that it conveys.
Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, was the greatest of all American sculptors. Alright, my opinion of course, but who can deny that his “Seated Lincoln” within the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is the among the best works of sculpture in American history? French lived in an era when many a memorial were being built to soldiers who served in the Civil War. He designed a number of them. And so, given my interest in the Civil War, his memorials resound with me. Especially his Lincoln. But, to compound my respect for French, he also spent his adolescence in Concord, where I was born. His very first public work was “The Minuteman” at the Old North Bridge in Concord. Some future post will focus on that work and its significance to me. Suffice it to say, Daniel Chester French and I seem to share a similar respect for the same historical figures.
I first saw his “Mourning Victory” about a month ago. I’ve been to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord a number of times, but somehow missed it previously. Having read up on the work recently, I was determined to find the Melvin Memorial during my last visit. And I was not disappointed.
In 1897, James C. Melvin, a successful Boston businessman, commissioned French to design a memorial to his three brothers who died in the Civil War. Three brothers. It’s difficult to imagine. Asa, John and Samuel Melvin all served in Company K of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. James, the surviving brother and the youngest, served with them.
The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery had originally been organized in July 1861 as the 14th Massachusetts Infantry. They were assigned to garrison duty in the fortifications around Washington D.C. and became so proficient in the use of large guns that they were, in January 1862, re-designated the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. By 1864, with Grant’s Overland campaign underway (and the horrific Union casualties that resulted), the need for infantry in the field resulted in the transfer of many heavy artillery units to the front. Pulled out of their safe fortifications around Washington, the “heavies” soon found themselves on the battle lines, serving as infantry in the thickest of the fighting. The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery saw their first front-line action during the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864. Then again in the Battle of North Anna. And again during the assaults on Petersburg in June 1864. In a few short weeks, the regiment saw terrible casualties.
John Melvin died of disease in a military hospital at Fort Albany, Virginia before these campaigns even began. Asa Melvin, the oldest brother, was killed during one of the assaults on Petersburg. Samuel Melvin was captured shortly after the Battle of Spotsylvania and died in the infamous Andersonville prison. He was captured only five days before his date of discharge. During the war, Samuel kept a journal, and the passages written during his time in Andersonville are now regarded as one of the most historically valuable records of the terrible experiences of prisoners there.
It is difficult to read. Just a couple of samples: “It is rough, it is bad, and to me it is almost unsupportable. How rough it is to serve our Country through so many privations for 3 long years, then, instead of going to that longed-for home of joy & happiness, be put in this pen of insatiate misery, without one consoling thought even. If anybody was ever miserable, I am since coming here. Only 5 days more, then I was expecting to enjoy life as hugely as any man could.” His final entry, after writing about his own illness for a number of weeks, was recorded in the prison hospital, “As things look now, I stand a good chance to lay my bones in old Ga., but I’d hate to as bad as one can, for I want to go home.”
The Melvin Memorial, as designed by French, depicts a mourning angel over the graves of the three fallen soldiers. Her eyes are closed. In one hand she holds a laurel branch. In the other she holds an American flag, its stars only subtly visible, like a shroud over her head. It is at once a stirring depiction of strength and victory in death. And yet, at the same time, a haunting and mournful statement on the tragedy of war.
Historian Alfred S. Roe, the great chronicler of Massachusetts in the war, a man who wrote many a regimental history and other works about the sons of the Bay State in the Civil War, wrote a piece about the dedication of French’s memorial in 1909. 88 members of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery attended the ceremony. A number of them gave personal reminiscences of the Melvin boys. James Melvin, who had for so long envisioned a memorial to his brothers, was the key speaker.
“Occasionally a dream is realized,” Roe wrote. “That a lad in his teens, his soul filled with love for his brothers, sorrow for their untimely deaths, and admiration for their daring and devotion, should in visions see a fitting monument to their memory is not so strange, but that he, in his later manhood, should be able to see his dream take tangible form is almost marvelous.”