Pittsfield

IMG_2654 (2)
Pittsfield Soldiers’ Monument, Berkshire County. (See gallery below for addition photos)

PittsfieldLocation: 1 East Street, Pittsfield
Coordinates: 42°26’54.0″N 73°15’13.2″W
Date dedicated: September 24, 1872
Architect/contractor/sculptor: Launt Thompson of Albany, New York, design and sculpture; Robert Wood & Co., Philadelphia, casting; construction by Joseph S. Browne of New York
Number of names: 108 who died in the war

Fundraising for the monument began immediately after the war. According to Alfred S. Roe, a chronicler of Massachusetts Civil War history in the post-war decades, the effort was begun by a woman of Pittsfield, “long conspicuous for her devotion to the cause of the soldier.”[1] Unfortunately, he did not name her. It was Mrs. Parthenia Fenn (wife of Curtis T. Fenn, owner of the Pittsfield Cotton Factory) who took such an active interest in the welfare of the soldiers. Pittsfield did not have a conventional soldiers’ aid society per se, but activities and donations in support of the soldier were organized by Mrs. Fenn as sole manager and director. As a local historian recalled, “Long before the war closed, the name of Mrs. Fenn was one of those most familiar by the campfire and the hospital.”[2]

Fairs gradually increased the funds to $3,000 and in 1871, the town appropriated an additional $7,000. The monument was placed at the west end of the town park where many of the war enlistments took place.[3] The primary inscription reads, “For the Dead a Tribute; For the Living a Memory; for Posterity an Emblem of Loyalty to the Flag of the Country.” It was cast from cannons furnished by the federal government. Its pedestal is made from New London, Connecticut granite.

IMG_2661Launt Thompson, the sculptor of the unique color sergeant, was an accomplished Irish-born sculptor and a resident of Albany and New York City. He was known for his sculptures of important generals including John Sedgwick at West Point, Ambrose Burnside in Providence, and Winfield Scott at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington. This is the only soldiers’ monument in his portfolio representing the common Union volunteer. The statue is not replicated anywhere else in the Commonwealth. Of the sculpture, the New York Tribune idealistically observed that it represented the true American volunteers who were not “clods raked in by conscription, not surplus population dragged from poverty to battle.”[4] A writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin perhaps addressed more directly the intent of the monument in stating that it was not a portrait, but its face “will answer for hundreds of young men who went forth to die in defense of the their country’s flag.”[5]

On the day of dedication, 25,000 people gathered to for the exercises. Trains arrived throughout the morning were overloaded with many male passengers on the roofs of cars. The procession was estimated at 3,000 including 1,200 veterans.[6] George W. Curtis, writer, activist, and former political editor of Harper’s Weekly, gave the oration. Before the war, he was a member of the experimental transcendentalist Brook Farm community. He was an abolitionist, advocate for black civil rights and for women’s suffrage.

He began by recounting Pittsfield’s role in the Revolution and the late Civil War. He spoke in moving terms of some of the town’s heroes, including Capt. Charles T. Plunkett who led a “forlorn hope” during the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana–a small band of volunteers who advanced in front of the main body to clear obstructions leading to the ramparts.

Despite his activism, in reflecting on the meaning of the war, Curtis devoted most of his time on moderate themes, praising the preservation of republican government and particularly the message sent to European powers such as “sneering London” and “plotting Paris.” The nations of Europe, he said, now saw the true strength of America and stood in amazement that the Americans armies, being made up of citizen volunteers and not professional soldiers, were not “the machine of the government to manage the people, it was the people managing themselves.”[7]

He devoted a briefer portion of his address to rejoicing, optimistically, that the Old South was melting away like an iceberg, that “one vast brotherhood of justice” stood in place of a nation divided by slavery.[8] As comforting as this notion may have been, disputed state and local elections in the South later that year would lead to widespread violence against black voters, including the infamous Colfax Massacre.

Among the names on the Pittsfield monument are those of four men who died fighting with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry–the first African-American unit recruited in the North. Private Eli B. Franklin was a 32 year-old laborer from Pittsfield who was wounded in the famed assault made by the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina. He died two weeks later in a hospital in Beaufort. Private John Van Blake was a 21 year-old laborer from Pittsfield who died of consumption on Morris Island, South Carolina on December 21, 1863. Private Levi Bird was a 37 year-old blacksmith from Pittsfield who died of disease while the unit was stationed in Charles, South Carolina after the war on July 10, 1865. Private Henry Wilson was a 19 year-old laborer from Pittsfield who died of disease in Charleston, South Carolina on July 31, 1865.

In 2013, the Pittsfield Soldiers Monument was restored and rededicated.

Click on photos to enlarge:

[1] Alfred S. Roe, Monuments, tablets and other memorials erected in Massachusetts to commemorate the service of her sons in the war of the rebellion, 1861-1865, (Boston: Wright and Potter Printers, 1910), 94.
[2] Joseph Edward A. Smith, The History of Pittsfield, (Springfield: C. W. Bryan and Co., 1876), volume 2, 625.
[3] “Dedication of the Pittsfield Soldiers’ Monument,” Pittsfield Sun, September 25, 1872, 2.
[4] “Soldiers’ Monument, Pittsfield,” New York Tribune, October 2, 1872, 4.
[5] Town of Pittsfield, George W. Curtis, The proceedings at the dedication of the soldiers’ monument at Pittsfield, Mass: September 24, 1872 : including the oration of Hon. Geo. Wm. Curtis. (Pittsfield, Mass: Chickering & Axtell, steam printers, 1872), 10.
[6] Pittsfield Sun, September 25, 1872, 2.
[7] George W. Curtis, Dedication of the soldiers’ monument at Pittsfield, 30-32.
[8] Curtis, 35.

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