Ashburnham Soldiers’ Monument (Worcester County). See below for additional images.

Location: Town Hall, 32 Main Street, Ashburnham
Coordinates: 42°38’09.5″N 71°54’32.2″W
Date dedicated: June 5, 1905
Design/Sculptor/Manufacturer: Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, sculptor

Ashburnham’s Civil War monument is one of several copies of an excellent sculpture known as “The Volunteer” by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson. The first version of “The Volunteer” was sculpted in 1902 for Newburyport’s Civil War memorial. It was reproduced for the Massachusetts Civil War monument at the Vicksburg National Military Park and later for several Massachusetts towns including North Attleborough, Sharon, and Townsend. For a more detailed description of Kitson’s life and work, see the Newburyport page. A brief summary will be offered here.

Kitson was the most prolific American female sculptor of the early 20th century. Her sculptures are featured in almost every state in the country. A native of Brookline, she showed great skill in sculpting from a young age. She encountered prejudice in the artistic world being a young woman but found that doors opened when she applied to art schools and sought commissions under the name “Theo” rather than Theodora.[1] She married an up-and-coming young sculptor named Henry Hudson Kitson and trained in Paris where she earned an honorable mention at the Salon in 1890 (the first woman to do so). She and her husband returned to Massachusetts in 1893 and set up a studio in Boston. She was the first woman admitted to the National Sculpture Society in 1895.[2]

“The Volunteer” is remarkable for its detail and its lifelike sense of movement. Kitson deliberately wanted to break away from the rigid parade-rest soldiers of prior decades and to depict the youthful volunteer as he truly was. In this, she was effective. The sculpture is not only artistically compelling but historically accurate in depicting the details of a soldier’s gear in light marching order.

Ashburnham’s monument was the gift of Melvin O. Adams, a successful Boston attorney and railroad executive who was born and raised in Ashburnham. He is perhaps best known as a member of the legal team that successfully defended Lizzie Borden during her trial.[3] The monument was dedicated on morning of June 5, 1905 and the new town hall was dedicated that same afternoon. It was remembered as the largest celebration the town had ever seen with the greatest “number of people ever within its borders,” to see the twin dedications.[4] Various officials gave remarks with James Wolff of Boston, commander of the Massachusetts Department of the Grand Army of the Republic offering the key address.[5]

The monument bears an inscription, “To the men of Ashburnham who served their country in the war that saved the Union.”

At the beginning of the war, the local militia company, the Ashburnham Light Infantry, became the largest group of volunteers. It included roughly 80 men from the town. The company was held in reserve by the Commonwealth for some months, a delay that caused some frustration and embarrassment to the town, until they were finally called upon to join Company G of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry in July 1861.[6]

Lt. Col. Joseph P. Rice

The ranking soldier from Ashburnham with the most notable record was also one of the fallen. Lt. Col. Joseph Rice commanded the local company before the war and he rose to second in command of the 21st Massachusetts. He was killed during the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862. The worst engagement the 21st Massachusetts faced, Chantilly is sad example of the manner in which the fog of war can lead to extreme casualties.

Chantilly was fought in a blinding thunderstorm in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Bull Run as Confederates attempted to cut off the Union retreat to Washington. At the height of the storm, the 21st Massachusetts was ordered to advance into dense woods in support of the 51st New York. In the torrential rain and near darkness, the two regiments lost track of one another. When the 21st Massachusetts finally found a body of troops in their front, they assumed it was the New Yorkers and set about reforming their lines. Just as some men began to mutter, “those are rebels,” the Confederates opened fire. As the regimental historian described, it seemed in the “anguish and despair” of the moment that the entire regiment lay on the ground. Lt. Col. Rice was among the many killed in the woods. He was shot just as he was advancing alone towards the body of men in an attempt to determine who they were. A long-time officer in the pre-war militia, he was referred to as an outstanding drill master, a man of “iron-will,” and his death a terrible loss to the regiment.[7]

According to local historian Ezra Stearns, 243 men from Ashburnham enlisted during the war.[8]

[1] Ethel Mickey, “Memorial artist honored nearly a century later,” Salem News, July 27, 2010.

[2] Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller eds., North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary, (Routledge Press, 2013), 305.

[3] Edwin M. Bacon, ed., Men of Progress: One Thousand Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Leaders in Business and Professional Life in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston: The New England Magazine, 1896), 939–940.

[4] “Gifts of Town Hall and Statue,” The Boston Herald, June 8, 1905, 5.

[5] “Hall and Monument Dedicated,” The Providence News, June 6, 1905, 3.

[6] Ezra Scollay Stearns, History of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, from the grant of Dorchester Canada to the present time, 1734–1886 (Ashburnham, Massachusetts: Town of Ashburnham, 1887), 441.

[7] Charles F. Wolcott, History of the Twenty-first Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, in the War for the Preservation of the Union, 1861-1865, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882), 162-168.

[8] Stearns, 461.

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