Dorchester

IMG_3316
Dorchester Soldier’s Monument (Suffolk County)

Location: Rev. James K. Allen Park,
Coordinates: 42°18’29.5″N 71°03’46.0″W
Date dedicated: September 17, 1867
Architect/sculptor/manufacturer: Benjamin F. Dwight
Number of names: 97 men who died in the war

Dorchester’s Civil War monument was placed on Meeting House Hill where the settlement’s first church was built in 1631. The old Dorchester Common on which the meeting house stood is now known as Rev. James K. Allen Park. The current First Parish Church structure, built in 1897, stands directly across the street from the monument.

An imposing and ornate obelisk, the monument was dedicated on September 17, 1867—the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. A few other towns chose the Antietam anniversary for their dedication date (it seems thus far that no other Civil War battle anniversaries were observed in this way in Massachusetts). The reason for Antietam being singled out is not clear—although the extraordinarily high number of Massachusetts casualties in that battle is likely related.

The primary inscription reads, “In Honor of the Citizen Soldiers of Dorchester Who Fought in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865.” The names of 97 Dorchester soldiers who died in the war are listed. Overall, 1,277 men from Dorchester served.[1]

The architect of the monument was Benjamin Franklin Dwight who designed numerous buildings in and around Boston including large town houses on Arlington Street, the old Gloucester Town Hall, the Worcester Music Hall, and Boston’s Globe Theater.[2]

Rev. Charles A. Humphreys gave the dedication address. A Dorchester native, Humphreys was at Harvard Divinity School when the war began. After he completed his studies and was ordained in June 1863, a former Harvard classmate urged him to become a regimental chaplain. Humphreys signed on as chaplain of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry in August 1863 and served in that capacity until the end of the war.

Humphreys, Charles
Rev. Charles A. Humphreys, Chaplain of the 2nd Mass Cavalry

Humphreys wrote an interesting and candid memoir of his wartime experiences–an account full of poignant episodes unique to the experience of a chaplain. Responsible not only for church services, chaplains tended the wounded, helped bury the dead, and aided the men of his regiment, his temporary “flock,” in whatever way he could.

Rev. Humphreys wrote that the hardest duty he ever had to tend to was to prepare a deserter for the firing squad. The young man had belonged to the 2nd Mass Cavalry but deserted to join a band of Confederate guerillas and was captured in the act of fighting against Union troops. The soldier asked Humphreys to be his counsel, and Humphreys pled his case, “but to no effect.” The youth leaned on Humphreys’s arm as they walked together to his execution and the description Humphreys offers of their conversation is particularly emotional. Humphreys also writes of the dead and wounded during the Overland Campaign in vivid terms. Perhaps the blunt realism of his memoir was due in part to the loss of his younger brother who died in the Battle of Cold Harbor.[3]

Given all this, it is not surprising that Humphreys’s dedication address for the Dorchester monument carries an undertone of condemnation of the Confederate cause. Later, reconciliationist themes would come to dominate monument dedications and veterans’ reunions of the 1880s and 1890s with an emphasis on shared valor and handshakes between men in blue and gray. But in 1867, memories of the war were still fresh. Humphreys stressed that his speech was intended to “celebrate not the triumph of a section, but the saving of a nation.” At the same time, he observed, “But even if our monument, besides celebrating the virtues of our heroes, should also recall the crimes of the Rebels, and revive the long-smothered indignation against the plotters of treason in the South, still let it stand. We may forgive, but we cannot forget,—we must not forget. We owe it to our brothers not to forget their sacrifices. Upon their wasted lives we are rearing the structure of a nobler civilization.”

[1] Dorchester (Boston). 1868. Dedication of the soldiers’ monument at Dorchester, September 17, 1867. Boston: T. Groom & Co., p. 25.
[2] American Art and Architecture, (1893), vol. 42, p. 13.
[3] Humphreys, Charles A. 1918. Field, camp, hospital and prison in the Civil War, 1863-1865, 19-22 and 49-52.

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