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 has numerous monuments relating to the Civil War but only one Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument erected by the city to honor all those from Boston who died in the war. [Similar monuments belonging to cities or towns that have since been annexed by Boston—including Roxbury, Charlestown, Brighton, Dorchester, West Roxbury/Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park—will be covered in separate entries].
The Boston Soldiers and Sailors Monument is one of the most imposing war memorials in the Commonwealth. It is by far the tallest 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 soldiers and sailors was underway in 1866, just a year after the war ended. Boston chose sculptor Martin Milmore to design this tribute.
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 a 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.
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 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. 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 four projecting pedestals which hold secondary statues were for many years 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 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 and several women volunteers aiding soldiers in the field. This is particularly noteworthy as Boston’s monument 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. 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 and Charles Devens. Among the civilians are Governor Andrew, Senator Charles Sumner and Senator Henry Wilson. The fourth relief 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 national landmark 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.
[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.]