Boston’s Civil War Monument and the Angel of Death

Boston’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, built 1877

There are many memorials in Boston related to the Civil War. But only one “official” monument was erected by the city to honor those from Boston who died in the war. The Boston Soldiers and Sailors Monument is one of the most imposing war memorials in the Commonwealth. The story behind the monument, as well as that of the sculptor, are worth noting.

The monument stands on a modest knoll known somewhat grandiosely as Flagstaff Hill. It is the highest point on Boston Common (although not by much) and was so named when a large flagstaff was placed there in 1837. The flagstaff was removed in the late 1860s to make way for the monument.

The movement to build a memorial to Boston’s soldiers and sailors was underway in 1866, just a year after the war ended. The sculptor chosen for this imposing tribute was Martin Milmore.

Martin was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1844. When he was seven, his widowed mother emigrated to Boston and soon after made arrangements for her sons to join her in America. Martin’s older brother Joseph became a stonecutter and educated Martin in that trade. Martin took it a step further and became a brilliant sculptor. By the late 1860s, the two had opened a studio together in Boston’s South End and had a number of impressive works to their credit. Among these are the massive soldier’s monuments in Jamaica Plain and Charlestown, as well as the enigmatic “American Sphinx”–an unusual Civil War memorial at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

When the city council of Boston ordered the construction of a Civil War memorial, Martin put in a design proposal. He won the contract of $75,000. The cornerstone was laid in September 1871 and the monument completed six years later. The dedication of the monument on September 17, 1877 (the 15th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam) drew a crowd of 25,000. Among the dignitaries in attendance were General George McClellan, General Joseph Hooker and President Ulysses Grant. General Charles Devens, then a well-known Massachusetts war hero (after whom Fort Devens was named), gave the key oration of the day.

The monument itself features a Roman victory column of roughly 75 feet in height. Atop the column is a female figure, eleven feet in height, wearing a crown of 13 stars representing “America.” In one hand she holds an American flag, in the other a sword and laurel wreath.

There is something of a mystery regarding the base of the column. There are four projecting pedestals which once held four bronze statues representing a soldier, a sailor, and allegorical figures depicting history and peace. The pedestals are now conspicuously empty. Depending on which article one reads, the statues have either been stolen or removed and placed in storage. While the latter seems more probable, a definitive source on the matter proves elusive.

Also featured on the monument are four bas-relief bronze tablets depicting a pantheon of notable Massachusetts figures of the war era. “The Departure of the Regiment” shows troops passing by the State House steps. Among the troops are General Benjamin Butler and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. On the steps are dignitaries including Governor John Andrew, abolitionist Wendell Phillips and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “The Sanitary Commission” shows several leaders and supporters of that organization including James Russell Lowell and Rev. Edward Hale. The most elaborate relief is the “Return from the War” and depicts about 40 individuals. On horseback among the soldiers are Generals Nathaniel Banks, William Francis Bartlett and Charles Devens. Among the civilians are Governor Andrew, Senator Charles Sumner and Senator Henry Wilson.

Carved in the main panel of the pedestal are words of dedication, “To the men of Boston who died for their country on land and sea, in the war which kept the Union whole, destroyed slavery, and maintained the constitution, the grateful city has built this monument, that their example may speak to coming generations.”

Martin Milmore was prolific in his work, leaving a legacy of many fine sculptures. Perhaps he might have gone on to create a national landmark but, sadly, he died in 1883 at age 38 of liver disease.

“Death and the Sculptor,” a memorial to Martin and Joseph Milmore

In accordance with Martin’s wishes, his friend Daniel Chester French sculpted the memorial over his grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain. French was America’s greatest sculptor…an argument I’ll probably make in a future post (perhaps little more need be said but that he was the sculptor for the statue in the Lincoln Memorial). The work French crafted for Martin (and his brother Joseph who died not long after and is buried in the same plot) is called “Death and the Sculptor.” It depicts a young artist with hammer and chisel in hand, working on a relief of a Sphinx (closely resembling the Sphinx that Martin and Joseph created for Mount Auburn Cemetery). The Angel of Death, with poppies in one hand, reaches with the other to stay the artist’s hand with a gentle touch. He appears surprised and confused and she gentle and calm. His time has come.

The sculpture won French international acclaim, a medal in Paris (only the second time an American artist was so honored in France), and is still referred to as one of the greatest American sculptures. You really have to get a close-up look at the figures and their expressions to fully understand why.

This past Memorial Day, Boston’s Civil War Monument was joined by another impressive memorial…a “Flag Garden” of 20,000 small flags representing Massachusetts men and women who have lost their lives in wars since the First World War. I have only seen photographs, but images of the ocean of flags with the Civil War Monument in the background are breathtaking…It brings a new and profound meaning to the name Flagstaff Hill.

[Sources: Michael Quinlin, Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past, (2004), 78-79; Edwin Munroe Bacon, Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, (1886), 20-21.]

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

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