“It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced…”
The “Massachusetts Civil War Monuments Project” began in 2016 as an informal effort on the part of a small group to catalog, photograph and research the history of Civil War monuments in each Massachusetts town. The project is not affiliated with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
While the outstanding majority of Massachusetts Civil War monuments are well cared for (many having been restored during the Civil War 150th through a special grant program from the Commonwealth), these memorials to Civil War dead in the Bay State nonetheless have a way of fading into the landscape. They often go unnoticed by the general public and their relevance to our communities today seems nebulous. Indeed, in numerous towns, we found that neither local historical society nor library staff could tell us where their monument was located.
Our primary objective, therefore, is to call attention to these monuments, to pinpoint their location and to provide some historical context as to when and how they came to be. Where possible, we highlight the sculptors and architects, the committees and local leaders who made these memorials a reality. We try to say something, however brief, about those from each town who served. Most important, when dedication orations were published, we attempt to summarize the meaning that speakers ascribed to these monuments. As the bulk of Massachusetts monuments were placed during Reconstruction, the monuments were typically referred to as symbols of a Union restored and slavery destroyed. Many speakers passionately condemned a rebellion based on the preservation of slavery and framed the war as a struggle of slavery against freedom. This emancipationist tone, so common in the decade after the war, eventually faded and was replaced by softer–and less contentious–rhetoric.
Now, in 2021, the meaning and significance of Civil War monuments is opened anew. The Black Lives Matter movement lays bare the fact that the work advanced by the Civil War and emancipation is anything but finished—that we have an obligation to address racism and see through the promises of equality and justice. These imperfect memorials to Massachusetts soldiers of the Union, therefore, represent unfinished work. It is our hope, however, that they can and will serve as reminders to our communities to be dedicated to that unfinished work.