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Boston Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (Suffolk County) with annual Memorial Day weekend “Flag Garden” honoring the 37,000 Massachusetts men and women who have died in service to their country since the Revolution.

Location: Flagstaff Hill, Boston Common
Coordinates: 42°21’19.6″N 71°03’59.0″W
Date dedicated: September 17, 1877
Architect/sculptor: Martin Milmore

Boston’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (sometimes called the Army and Navy Monument), erected by the city to honor all those from Boston who died in the war, attracts a great deal of attention given its grandeur and prominent location in the middle of Boston Common. It is, however, not the first monument Boston built to honor all her sons who fell. The earlier one, located in relative obscurity in Mount Hope Cemetery, has been quite deliberately overshadowed by the great victory column on the Common. More on that earlier monument follows below. [It should also be noted that cities or towns that have since been annexed by Boston also built their own monuments before annexation—including Roxbury, Charlestown, Brighton, DorchesterWest Roxbury/Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park—but these are covered in separate articles].

First, the monument that is known to most visitors to Boston Common is by far the tallest Civil War monument in the Commonwealth at 126 feet. It stands on a small knoll known as Flagstaff Hill for the large flagstaff that was placed there in 1837. The movement to build a memorial to Boston’s fallen soldiers and sailors in a more prominent location was underway in 1866, just a year after the war ended. Boston chose sculptor Martin Milmore to design this tribute.

Martin Milmore
Martin Milmore, sculptor (1844-1883)

Milmore 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. His older brother Joseph became a stonecutter and educated Milmore in that trade. Milmore took it a step further and became an excellent 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.[1]

When the city council of Boston ordered the construction of a Civil War memorial, Milmore put in a design proposal. He won the contract of $75,000. The cornerstone was laid in September 1871 with parades and ceremonies and a huge crowd in attendance. The monument was completed six years later. The dedication of the monument on September 17, 1877 (the 15th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam) drew an estimated crowd of 200,000 and featured a parade numbering 25,000 participants (both were records in the city’s history).[2] 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. For more on the dedication, and in particular the role that veterans played in it, see my article here.


The monument 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. 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.” The direct reference to the destruction of slavery is noteworthy as many cities and towns either avoided the topic on their monuments or obliquely referenced the cause. The subject was also alluded to on several monuments through sculptural symbolism–usually the inclusion of broken chains. A few, (including New Bedford, Ashfield, Fitchburg, and Wilbraham) did reference slavery directly in their inscriptions.  Boston’s forceful statement in stone is certainly a testament to the work of the city’s active abolitionists.

The four projecting pedestals which hold secondary statues were for many years (during the late 20th and early 21st centuries) empty. This led to some confusion as to whether the monument in fact had never been finished or whether the secondary statues were simply in storage somewhere, awaiting restoration. The latter was the case and the four allegorical figures were restored (along with the rest of the monument) and put back in place in 2014. They represent “Peace,” “The Sailor,” “The Muse of History,” and “The Citizen-Soldier.” (Click on the images below to enlarge).

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 after receiving their colors from Gov. John Andrew, a scene which played out again and again. Among the troops are General Benjamin Butler, Colonel Thomas Cass, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and General Charles Russell Lowell. On the steps are dignitaries including Governor John Andrew, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a considerable number representing Boston’s moral center–religious luminaries including Archbishop John Joseph Williams, Bishop Alexander H. Vinton, Rev. Phillips Brooks, and Rev. John Turner Sargent.[3]

“The Sanitary Commission” shows several supporters of that organization along with a large number of women volunteers working to aid wounded soldiers. Rev. Edward Everett Hale is depicted, backed by a group of seven philanthropists who are, from left to right, Enoch R. Mudge, Alexander H. Rice, James Russell Lowell, Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, George Ticknor, William Warland Clapp, and Marshall P. Wilder.[4] Available sources do not indicate the identities of the several women volunteers depicted. This is particularly unfortunate as the depiction of women supporting the war effort is one of the chief characteristics of this monument that makes it so unique. Boston’s is the only one in the Commonwealth to feature the work of the Sanitary Commission in which so many Massachusetts civilians (especially women) were involved. In virtually every town in Massachusetts, large groups of mothers, daughters, and wives did extraordinary work in support of the soldiers–from organizing supplies to nursing and aiding returning veterans. This was typically mentioned in various towns’ dedicatory addresses but physically represented only on Boston’s monument.

The most elaborate relief is the “Return from the War” and depicts about 40 individuals with the structures of Beacon Street etched in the background. On horseback among the soldiers are Generals Nathaniel Banks, William Francis Bartlett (for more on this remarkable figure, one of the state’s most lauded yet now forgotten heroes, see my article here) and Charles Devens. Among the civilians are Governor Andrew, Senator Henry Wilson, later Governor William Claflin, later Boston mayor Nathaniel Shurtleff, Senator Charles Sumner, and abolitionist James Redpath. The fourth panel depicts “The Departure of the Sailors from Home” and a naval engagement. (Click the images below to enlarge).

Martin Milmore was prolific in his work, leaving a legacy of many fine sculptures. Perhaps he might have gone on to create a great national monument, but sadly he died in 1883 at age 38. In accordance with Milmore’s wishes, his friend Daniel Chester French (of Lincoln Memorial fame) sculpted the memorial over his grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain. The work French crafted for Milmore (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 Milmore 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.

Each Memorial Day weekend, Flagstaff Hill is decorated with a “Flag Garden” of 37,000 small flags representing Massachusetts men and women who lost their lives in service since the Revolution. The tradition brings a new and profound meaning to the name Flagstaff Hill.

Boston’s original Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Mount Hope Cemetery

Location: Mount Hope Cemetery, 355 Walk Hill Street, Boston
Coordinates: 42°16’53.9″N 71°06’16.5″W
Date dedicated: July 3, 1867
Architect/sculptor: Design by Edward R. Brown, city engineer; Construction by the Granite Railway Company, Concord, NH

The location of Boston’s first Civil War Monument reflects the prevalent attitude of the time with regard to this new, often divisive, and emotionally fraught concept of a soldiers’ monument in America. The earliest Massachusetts monuments took a funerial form–great tombstones to the many dead–and were purposefully located on sacred ground where one might contemplate their sacrifices in a devotional manner.

Mount Hope Cemetery was acquired by the city of Boston in 1857. As it was city property, it became the designated location for the burial of the city’s soldiers and sailors whose remains went unclaimed by their relatives, or those who had no relatives to claim them. In 1865, the city established an official plot for this purpose and the remains of some already interred were relocated there. The cemetery Board of Trustees strongly felt an appropriate monument should be erected on the plot to honor these forgotten soldiers and sailors. The City Council approved the trustees’ plans on September 25, 1865.[5]

The monument was dedicated on July 3, 1867 and bears the inscription, “To the memory of the soldiers and sailors of Boston who fell in defense of their country and liberty in the Rebellion, which ended in 1865, this monument is gratefully dedicated by the City of Boston.” City Alderman Charles W. Slack gave the principle oration. The monument, he said, symbolized “a war for union, nationality and the rights of man…Faithfully holding to the principles it represents, we may defy future treason from within or aggression from without…With the blood of our brethren cementing its granite and their bones for its foundation stones, the holiest associations of this hour and presence enjoin upon us loyalty, justice, and truth!”[6]

Just months after the dedication, on September 16, 1867, the City Council voted to erect another moment on Boston Common or the Public Garden. This plan had been some months in the making on the part of residents who envisioned something more artistic than the cemetery monument in a more public place. Unfortunately, the Council’s vote ran afoul of an 1864 state law which declared that a municipality could erect one soldiers’ monument only. Whereas Boston already had one in Mount Hope Cemetery, no further monuments could be built under the existing law.[7] The law was eventually revised but the process represented a commitment on the city’s part to build something more “official” and clearly signaled a rejection of memorials in sacred spaces, instead prioritizing more celebratory monuments in civic spaces.


[1] Michael Quinlin, Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past, (2004), 78-79.

[2] Boston Daily Advertiser, September 18, 1877, 1; “Dedication of the Boston Army and Navy Monument,” The Farmers’ Cabinet (Amherst, NH), September 25, 1877, 2.

[3] Edwin Munroe Bacon, Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, (1886), 20-21.

[4] Bacon, 21.

[5] City of Boston, Erection and dedication of the Soldiers’ and sailors’ monument in the army and navy lot, in Mount Hope cemetery, belonging to the city of Boston, (Boston: Printed by the City Council, 1867), 6-11.

[6] Boston Evening Transcript, July 5, 1867, 4.

[7] Boston Evening Transcript, September 27, 1867, 4.

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