Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New England Civil War Monuments: Westford and York

I've often thought that the town commons of New England are the Yankee equivalent of the courthouse squares down South. The presence of the Civil War looms just as large in the villages of Massachusetts or Maine as it does in small towns throughout Dixie. Of course, the monuments in New England honor a different cause, but they also serve as an equally powerful reminder of how Americans sought to commemorate the service and sacrifice of local soldiers once the war had ended.

Westford's Memorials

This summer I traveled to New England a couple of times, and on each trip, I had an opportunity to explore some of the region's Civil War monuments. My wife hails from Westford, Massachusetts, a town recently named by Money as one of America's best places to live.  The Civil War is never very far away in Westford -- the town chose to erect three different memorials to honor its native sons who fought for the Union.

The Westford Town Hall was built in 1870. That same year, the town dedicated a marble panel inscribed with the names of thirty-three war dead who hailed from Westford. The tablet, which was installed inside the Town Hall, carries an incredible amount of detail on most of the soldiers (and one sailor), including unit affiliation as well as the place and date of death. This memorial speaks plainly yet poignantly of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their country.

The Westford Town Hall from across Main Street. Constructed in 1870, the building was enlarged in 1880 and recently underwent an extensive renovation.
Memorial to Westford's Civil War dead inside the Town Hall. The panel is located on a staircase landing just inside the front entrance to the building. 

A detail from the memorial to Westford's Civil War dead, including soldiers who fell at Second Manassas and Antietam. Some of the deaths  recorded on the memorial occurred after the fighting had ended due to diseases that were contracted during the war. The latest death was recorded on July 11, 1867.

A few decades later, Col. Edwin D. Metcalf, a wealthy businessman and politician who had lived in Westford as a little boy, donated money for the construction of a memorial to honor the town's citizens who had served their country during the Civil War. The monument -- a bronze solider mounted atop a large granite base -- was dedicated on Memorial Day 1910. Edwin's father, Lt. William Metcalf, served in Co. C, 16th Massachusetts. He was apparently the first person in Westford to enlist at the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. Although Edwin Metcalf had long since moved away, he never forgot the delegation of Civil War veterans who met him at the train station when he returned to Westford to bury his father. As he told the crowd at the dedication ceremony:
They were strangers to me, they came without any solicitation, they came without any previous knowledge on my part, but I was so much pleased and so much touched at the spirit of devotion and loyalty of those who had stood shoulder to shoulder during the Civil War, that I then and there resolved that I would do something in Westford to the memory of the Veterans, and I hope this monument will stand and serve as an inspiration to the younger generation to take their part in matters of vital interest of their day, and to keep and preserve intact the good name of this great country, as the soldiers of Westford were ready to do 49 years ago. (quoted in Westford's Civil War Monument: A Centennial History from Contemporaneous Sources.)

The Westford Civil War Monument, erected in 1910 on a piece of land across from the town common. Over 200 men from Westford served in the Union military during the Civil War. Many veterans from Westford and neighboring Chelmsford attended the dedication ceremonies. Aside from Edwin Metcalf, former Massachusetts Governor and ex-Secretary of the Navy John D. Long and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Charles S. Hamlin also addressed attendees. Incidentally, Long had served as preceptor of the Westford Academy (my wife's alma mater) in the late 1850s.

In 1924, Westford commissioned a memorial to honor those residents who had served in the military from colonial times through the First World War. The eight-sided monument, topped by a large bronze eagle, was placed on the town common in November 1924. An entire side is dedicated to Westford's Civil War volunteers.

Westford's War Memorial, 1924. Service in each conflict from colonial times through World War I is commemorated by a bronze plate. (The Mexican War (1846-48) is missing, so presumably Westford did not send any volunteers to participate in that fight.)

One side of the monument contains this famous quote from Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster's January 27, 1830 speech against the Southern doctrine of nullification of Federal laws. The Union was still a powerful concept when this memorial was dedicated almost sixty years after the end of the Civil War.
The plate dedicated to those from Westford who served and died in the Civil War. The inscription leaves no doubt that Westford viewed the war as a fight to preserve the Union and end slavery.
York's "Confederate" Memorial

Aside from Westford, I also made a couple of side trips to York, a charming old seacoast town located in the southwest corner of Maine. Driving through York Village in early July, I did a double-take as we passed the town's Civil War monument. The soldier atop the base looks like anything but a typical Union infantryman. I made sure to go back and check it out in person during our August trip to York.

According to local legend, York accidentally received a statue destined for a Confederate war memorial, but the town leaders refused to acknowledge a mix-up. Around twenty years ago, York discovered that Kingstree, South Carolina had a similar problem -- the statue on the monument there appeared to be a Yankee. A person from York even wrote a letter to the people of Kingstree and proposed a "friendly exchange of our last two prisoners of war." But the historical record just doesn't support the theory of a switch. The statues were made in different years and in different states. The real story is a bit less interesting. More recent research indicates that the design of York's statue was deliberately chosen by the monument committee.
The Civil War Monument in York, Maine. The inscription reads:  "Erected 1906 to Sons of York who served their country in Army and Navy for preservation of the Union." Former Maine Governor Joshua Chamberlain of Little Round Top fame presided at the dedication ceremony on May 2, 1906. I wonder what he thought of the statue!

The odd representation of a Union soldier atop the York Civil War Monument. The uniform seems more like something out of the Spanish-American War, although one account has noted a resemblance to the garb that soldiers from the Iron Brigade or 20th Maine wore.

As I returned to the Washington area after my trips north, I reflected on what I had seen. Whether in Westford, York, or elsewhere, towns and cities across New England erected monuments to honor the sacrifices made by their own during the Civil War. But how many people walk or drive pass them every day without so much as a glance? These memorials in granite, marble, and bronze are more than just relics of the past. They are there to remind us of those who fought and died for Union and freedom. They also speak to the human toll that the war took on local communities. The least we can do now is to stop, listen, and reflect.


Donald Cartmell, The Civil War Up Close: Thousands of Curious, Obscure, and Fascinating Facts About the War America Could Never Win (2005); Karen Dandurant, "Soldier's garb generates doubt about monument," Seacoast Online, Sept. 26, 2004; Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998); Dan Huntley, "Civil War's granite soldiers rooted out behind 'enemy lines,'" The Day (New London, CT), Oct. 13, 1994; Gordon B. Seavey, "Because a grateful son refused to forget his past," Westford Eagle (date unavailable) (on file with J.V. Fletcher Library, Westford, MA); U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, History of Congress and the Capitol (website); Westford Museum & Historical Society (website); Westford's Civil War Monument: A Centennial History from Contemporaneous Sources (website).

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