My research stint in Boston hit a slight bump this week in the form of a flat tire – one of four tires that I probably should have replaced before driving all the way from Delaware to Massachusetts. But I was able to turn this inconvenience into an advantage by dropping my car off in Cambridge for service while I went to work at the Massachusetts Historical Society. On the way to retrieve my car yesterday afternoon, I made a few stops to photograph monuments, and then went on for a brief visit in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
The first stop on my journey was Cambridge Common, where I paused to photograph a Civil War soldier monument designed by Cyrus and Darius Cobb and erected in 1870. This elaborate granite pile honors the soldiers and sailors of Cambridge who perished during the war, each of whom are named on bronze plaques on the base. In the center of the architectural structure is a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and added to the structure in 1887. Materials I’ve consulted at the MHS suggest that the alcove where the Lincoln statue stands was once a source of disagreement for members of the committee who erected it, as different members suggests various types of statuary to fill the niche. I hope to pursue this line of inquiry further as an element of my book project.
After visiting this monument, I wandered around the Common a little bit to look at some of the other memorials. One of the themes of my book project will be the ways in which Civil War monuments were often placed in civic spaces that became magnets for other types of memorial sculpture. I hope to think further about whether this activity of adding additional monuments to a space alters or colors the meaning of monuments that are already present. A potentially potent example is this monument erected in 2010 to Prince Hall, an African-American abolitionist and community leader in colonial Boston who founded the African Grand Lodge of North America. The five polished granite plinths are engraved with words by and about Hall, decrying the dehumanizing evils of slavery and promoting efforts to abolish it. This new monument claims a portion of the Cambridge Common to call attention to a narrative of abolition that centers on the freedmen who worked tirelessly to bring it about. Placed at a slight remove from a Civil War monument featuring the Great Emancipator, this memorial brings additional shades of meaning.
As I left Cambridge Common and walked down Concord Avenue to pick up my car, I stumbled upon one of the many casts of Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson’s Hiker that appear throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere in the United States. These monuments to citizen soldiers of the Spanish-American War appeared in one of my dissertation chapters, and I am currently working on shaping that chapter into an article to send to a journal. Personally, I am struck by the sheer physicality of Kitson’s soldier, especially in comparison to some of the more slender soldiers that grace Civil War monuments. And I can’t help but wonder whether her emphasis on heroic masculinity was meant as an antidote to the real experiences of Spanish-American War soldiers, who perished in droves from malaria and other tropical fevers in Cuba, the Philippines, and stateside camps in Georgia and Florida. Over the past few days, I’ve been reading accounts of Massachusetts regiments deployed to Cuba during the war, and all of them describe a miserable ocean voyage, a few days of frenzied campaigning, and weeks of suffering in pestilential camps – a far cry from the heroic endeavor romanticized by men like Theodore Roosevelt. Kitson’s burly Hiker restores the romantic notion of war that the realities of 1898 eroded.
After picking up my car (four new tires!), I drove over to Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831 as America’s first garden cemetery. Mount Auburn is a magical spot for its landscape, its sculpture, and its history, all of which contribute to a deeply moving experience.
I first stopped in front of the American Sphinx, Martin Milmore’s 1872 Civil War memorial carved at the behest of Mount Auburn founder Dr. Jacob Bigelow. I last visited Mount Auburn in 2007, when I was working on my first paper on American monuments at the graduate level and chose the Sphinx as my subject. I don’t think I was quite able to tease out all the implications of carving a giant Sphinx in honor of Civil War soldiers back then, and I still don’t think I’ve figured it all out. In the meantime, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about other works by Martin Milmore, especially his Roxbury Soldier Monument for Forest Hills Cemetery, replicated in several other locations. As a research subject, Milmore is somewhat Sphinx-like himself – he left almost no written record, and died under shady circumstances at the age of 39. For me, the mystery may be part of the allure.
While at Mount Auburn, I took the opportunity to photograph another statue by Milmore, his Angel of the Resurrection carved for the Coppenhagen family plot in 1872. While working on the dissertation, I spent some time thinking about whether or not Civil War soldier statues could be understood as akin to cemetery angels, and I still think there may be something to this idea. Both were often mass-produced, carved by artisans whose names are often lost to history and marketed through catalogs. Both are also easily recognizable figures that communicate abstract concepts through the human form. And both could be interpreted as explicitly funerary – the cemetery angel is placed on a grave, and the soldier monument is often a placeholder for graves on distant shores that cannot be easily visited. Martin Milmore was known primarily for his soldier monuments, but the fact that he also made at least one cemetery angel is, to me, suggestive. His involvement in these various memorial projects is one of many indicators of the ways in which public commemoration intersected with the funerary sphere in the nineteenth century.
But my primary reason for taking a trip to Mount Auburn was to visit the grave of Lieutenant Huntington Frothingham Wolcott, with whose letters I spent so many poignant hours at the Massachusetts Historical Society last week. As I mentioned in a post last week, Wolcott was a young soldier who served only four months in the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry before dying of malarial fever on June 9, 1865, at the age of nineteen. In letters to his parents written between February and May 1865, he described the sometimes grueling pace of his life in the army, his impressions of the Virginia countryside in early spring, his first foray into battle at Five Forks, his joy at the surrender of Lee’s army, his grief at the assassination of President Lincoln, and many other topics. While reading and transcribing the letters of this young man, I began to feel a sense of affection for him, and it felt right to visit his gravesite to process some of these emotions.
My final stop in Mount Auburn was the Washington Tower designed by Jacob Bigelow and erected between 1852 and 1854. My experience climbing to the top of this tower was almost the exact opposite of my climb up the Bunker Hill Monument last week. This tower is not nearly as tall as the one at the Bunker Hill battlefield, but it is placed at the top of a high hill that offers a magnificent view of greater Boston. Also, I had the tower to myself, so I was able to enjoy the view in solitude. There are two viewing platforms on the tower: one at the circle of battlements about two thirds of the way up the tower, and the other at the very top, which is open to the sky. I have already mentioned my fear of heights, and the experience of emerging from the darkness into the sunlight at the top of this tower was a little extreme, especially with the brisk wind threatening rain that buffeted me as I stood at the rampart. But the view from the top is sublime, certainly one of the best in Boston and to my mind better than the experience I had at Bunker Hill, especially with the structure being so open. Given how deserted it was, it seems this may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Boston area.
I’ll finish this post with one image that doesn’t even begin to do justice to the view:
Two more days of research, and then I’ll be on my way back to Delaware and back to work on my various manuscripts!