“Melvin Memorial,” To Three Brothers Lost in Civil War

My cell phone photo hardly does justice to this beautiful work

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, was too young to enlist with them in 1861, but served in the 6th Massachusetts in 1864.

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.”

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

10 responses to ““Melvin Memorial,” To Three Brothers Lost in Civil War

  • Frank Breen

    Did James Melvin fight in the Civil War? He seems to be too young born in 1848,

    • Patrick Browne

      Hi Frank. Good catch. I was thrown by a sentence in the 1st Mass Heavy Artillery regimental history that stated that James also served “as a comrade in the Civil War.” At the time I presumed it was in the same regiment…but the history later states he served with the 6th Massachusetts in 1864. So, I’ve updated the article. Thanks for the correction.
      Patrick

      • Frank Breen

        I am still wondering about his age. In 1864 he turned from 15 to 16 years old. By then one would think you would have the Saving Private Ryan thing going because there were 3 brothers in the service and at least one already dead. I guess he volunteered for service at 16 years old. I am assuming the 3 brothers joined in 1861 and he followed 3 years later. I have gotten the idea that as war raged on and the death toll rose Massachusetts young men were not so excited to join up. 9 years ago when I did the video of Marian Wheeler giving a tour of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery stated the James joined up a few months after his brothers. Do you give lectures and tours that might be taped?

      • Patrick Browne

        James enlisted as a private with the 6th Massachusetts for its third term of service on July 11, 1864. He was 16 years old. Clearly, someone looked the other way in terms of his age. He was two years under the requirement. This was not uncommon. There was a dramatic slow down in enlistments during 1863, but that is probably due to several factors…lack of enthusiasm and also fewer Federal calls for troops. 1864 saw some renewed energy in unit formation in Massachusetts as the end seemed to be near. As for lectures, I do give some from time to time, including an occasional tour of the Old North Bridge National Park. I don’t have anything scheduled on the near horizon, but I’ll let you know.

      • Frank Breen

        Thanks again.
        I am trying to write a script for a new version of Marian’s talk on the Melvin Memorial. The new version will try to keep the emotion of her words but more accurate and more complete. It will be a slide show of the monument and other pictures from other items mentioned in the script. I plan to use the music from A Band of Brothers (hopefully getting permission) and I am hoping to find a dramatic voice over person. I will credit you article on the subject. Could you check out my script and ad any suggestions?

        Melvin Memorial

        This is Mourning Victory, meaning sad victory, a monument in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery created by America’s greatest sculptor, Daniel Chester French.

        It is more commonly known as the Melvin Memorial because it was commissioned by James Melvin, a wealthy Boston businessman, to honor his three brothers who had died in the Civil War.

        The statue depicts the angel of death guarding the graves of the three fallen brothers.

        The four brothers grew up in Concord and the elder therr were of military age and anxious to do their part in the Civil War.

        Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to make up his army and all the young men of Concord, maybe 70 of them, gathered together to form a group of their own to go off to fight in the Civil War.

        It was a grand occasion, the town leaders called a holiday – they had a big banquet in the Middlesex Hotel for all the boys.

        There was a parade to lead them off to the railroad station, there was a special train car to pick them up and take them to Washington to join the army.

        49 Concord men died in the Civil War.

        All four Melvin brothers tried to be part of this first group of celebrated recruits but the youngest brother, James, was too young – he did join his brothers in the army in 1864 at the age of 16, two years younger than the minimum age.

        Asa, John, Samuel and James Melvin all served in the relatively safe Company K of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.

        But as the war dragged on, the infantry soldiers died by the tens of thousands, these 3 brothers all found themselves in the infantry.

        John Melvin died of disease in a military hospital before he saw any action.

        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 hell hole Andersonville prison.

        Samuel kept a journal of his time in the army and at Andersonville – his writings are considered one of the most valuable historical records of that grim place.

        James came back to Concord, over the years he became quite well to do.

        In 1897, he commissioned his friend, Daniel Chester French, the boy he had grown up with in Concord, to do a memorial for his long deceased brothers.

        This is what he produced and placed here in 1906.

        The monument has been maintained over its 110 year history but, as you can see, it is in urgent need of some work.

        It is scheduled for a restoration in 2016.

        Her eyes are closed.

        The laurel leaves in her left hand are the symbol of victory.

        You can see her wings draping down behind her.

        It is difficult to see but her shroud is an American flag.

        You can see the stars at the top.

        There was a dedication held in 1909 where many of the men who served with the brothers gave personal reminiscences of the Melvin boys.

        This was not the most famous sculpture by Daniel Chester French.

        His most famous creation is the statue of the sitting Abraham Lincoln, in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, unveiled in 1922.

        Another of his very famous works stands less than a mile from here in the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord – next to the rude bridge that arched the flood.

        Both Daniel Chester French and his friend James Melvin are also buried in this Sleepy Hollow Cemetery but their markers are not nearly so elaborate.

        When Dan French was asked which of his 50 or so, famous sculptures did he like the best, he would always say Mourning Victory, he knew the boys – he had grown up with them.

      • Patrick Browne

        Glad to look it over. A couple things I would point out here. Dan did not grow up with the Melvin brothers. He could not have known them as the French family didn’t move to Concord until 1867. He may have been friends with James, but the older brothers he could not have met. (The French family was living in Amherst during the war while Judge French was President of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and they were in New Hampshire before that). A more minor point, I believe they did not enter the infantry but remained in the 1st Heavies. Heavy artillery units were frequently employed as infantry when the need arose but it would not be correct to say they entered the infantry.

      • Frank Breen

        According to Marian Wheeler, Dan’s first exposure to art training came when he attended school and was taught by May Alcott, the artist of the family. But he was 16 and 17 years old in 1867 – unlikely to start taking art classes. He may have been a student in Concord in the 1850s and he may have been a friend of James Melvin before the war. I have a reference that calls Dan a long time friend of James. Marian said that he knew the boys. It was back in 2006 when Marian volunteered to give me a tour of Sleepy Hollow. I put a microphone on her and filmed her as she talked and we walked up and down steep hills. She was 89. I know she is alive because her plot at the cemetery is still vacant.

        The Concord Library recently sent to me an obit of Mrs. James Melvin who died in 1945. Her husband, James Melvin, after serving in the Civil war went west to find something more profitable than farming in Concord. He married there but because of his illness he returned to Concord and bought a cottage from one of his cousins. The family was quite poor, “eke out the pension the Mr. Melvin received from the government he being one of the hundred day volunteers who received a medical discharge for rheumatic fever contracted while serving outside of Washington.” So there were 2 James Melvin(s) that served in the Civil War from Concord.

        The library also sent to me an excerpt from the book Concord and the Civil War. James Melvin enlisted in 1864 and was back in Concord at the end of October 1864. It seems like a short stay as I am sure bodies were in great demand.

      • Patrick Browne

        That is true about Dan and May Alcott. It was very shortly after the French family moved to Concord in 1867. She gave him his first drawing lessons and convinced him to formally pursue art. But he had been interested in sculpting since he was a small child. The family lived in Exeter, NH when he was born. They lived there until 1860 when they moved to Cambridge, then in 1863 moved to Amherst, then in 1867 moved to Concord. I don’t think he could have known the Melvin brothers to whom the monument is dedicated.
        The term of service for the 6th Mass was indeed 100 days. The War Department issued a call for 100 days regiments in 1864 with an aim to use them in defensive fortifications and other garrison positions, freeing up veterans to get out in the field and make a final push on several fronts, which, it was felt, would not take long.

  • Karen King

    Hi Patrick: Thank you for a great article. I am from Harvard, MA and now living in Hudson, MA, and have walked hundreds of miles during the years in that cemetery. I was so impressed with the Melvin Memorial I went to Concord Public Library to the Rare Book Room and was given the original book to read. I read it in an afternoon, cover to cover. This was about 15 or 20 years ago. I did locate a copy of the book and am now interested in selling it. Are you interested in owning your own copy? Also, it would be lovely in this article to have included a photo of French’s own grave, along with his wife’s grave, which as you probably know is only a few steps from the Melvin Memorial. Also, you might included photos of the Melvin Family plot at the far end of eastern most part of the cemetery. Tracking down the Melvin Family History has been very interesting. BTW, the family continues on, with a large branch in Ohio. One of the Melvin uncleske used bookstores in Concord. He gives them out to Melvin relatives. Owner of one of the stores decided that it was not a great idea to have the book entirely within one family and asked to wait. I waited a year and someone in town wanted to sell their copy. I bought it. Email me if you are interested. Thanks again for a great article. Karen P.S. I’m next door to you working on a biography of a Shaker brother from Maine. I’m a Shaker historian and professional archivist.

  • charles

    i RECENTLY ACQUIRED A COPY OF THE MEMORIAL BOOK INCLUDING THE DIARY AND PHOTOGRAPHS published in 1910, what a great story .

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