Boston’s Civil War Monument and the Emergence of the Massachusetts Grand Army of the Republic

Boston’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, designed and sculpted by Irish immigrant Martin Milmore, was dedicated on September 17, 1877. Photo by author.

About two hundred thousand people crowded the streets of Boston on the day the city’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was dedicated. The octagonal granite shaft, ornamented with large bronze statues and low relief panels, had been ten years in the making from conception to completion. It stood 137 and ½ feet tall on Flagstaff Hill, the highest point on Boston Common. The procession that marched that day, September 17, 1877, followed a meandering six mile route designed to reach numerous city neighborhoods. It numbered about twenty five thousand and took nearly four hours to pass without stopping. It was the largest procession the city had ever seen. The first division consisted of the new state militia units—mostly young men who had been just boys when the war was fought. Journalists celebrated the spirit and patriotism of the inexperienced militia, commenting on their lock-step and crisp uniforms and pardoning the occasional error in their maneuvers.[1]

But the day, as one reporter wrote, “belonged to the veteran soldiery” who followed in the second division. Compared to the brightly uniformed youths of the militia, these were “rough looking fellows in dark clothes and slouch hats who followed their tattered colors and guidons with something of the nonchalance when they trudged through Virginia mud.”[2] The crowds received the veterans with one long, continuous ovation along the entire route.[3] An array of high-ranking generals followed in carriages including former General-in-Chief and failed Presidential candidate George B. McClellan. The veterans “went wild” over him which, according to one reporter, was no surprise as the soldiers had always loved him. “It is not so easy to see,” the correspondent wrote, “why he should be popular with the crowd of lookers-on.”[4] There was a more “tender” reception for the carriages bearing wounded veterans, amputees, and former prisoners of war. One veterans’ post commander, an officer with one leg on crutches, attracted special sympathy from the crowd as he came to attention in front of the State House at the head of his company and saluted Governor Alexander Rice. The Governor came down the steps of the reviewing stand to doff his hat and bow to the man as the crowd applauded the veteran.[5]

This was one of the first and certainly the largest processions of the Massachusetts Department of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal order for veterans of the Civil War. The department was ten years old but still growing—indeed struggling to grow—and only within the previous two years had they been able to mount a large showing for a celebration in Boston. For thousands of civilians, this was the first time they had seen such an assembly of “their boys” since the war and it had a sensational effect on them. The sight of the veterans, once again in proud procession after twelve years, reinforced the reverence civilians felt for the “sacred” status of the discharged soldier. That identity which had been so carefully articulated and promoted by relief workers at Camp Misery to safeguard the rights and well-being of thousands of wounded, starving, and debilitated soldiers, still had weight and meaning for the general public and particularly those who still labored to help them. The new visibility of the Grand Army of the Republic brought those feelings once again to the fore.

And the GAR knew it. Brigadier General Horace Binney Sargent, a Boston attorney and war veteran who energized the Massachusetts Department of the GAR when he became its commander in 1876, wrote to his comrades later that fall, urging them to take advantage of the avalanche of positive publicity they had received after the monument dedication. “As you marched with the old army swing,” Binney wrote in a general order, “the tears and cheers of the people showed you that their great, warm heart had not forgotten. Let it never forget…Stimulate this memory to practical, active sympathy.” He called on them to use this opportunity and to immediately appoint fundraising committees and to seek donations to bolster their organization and aid their comrades in need. In time, the GAR would rally their political might to successfully lobby the federal government for a broad expansion of the national pension program for Civil War veterans.[6] But first, on the state level, even as they marched in Boston’s colossal celebration of 1877, the Massachusetts Department of the GAR were gearing up for a campaign to create a Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts. This had been Binney’s priority since his election and he passionately advocated for it, seemingly at every opportunity. In doing so, he stridently insisted that it could never be realized without a firm alliance and a cooperative effort between former soldiers and civilians. In the same general order, he asserted that they would not be successful without the energies of the women’s relief societies. “On your knees, if need be,” he ordered the members of the GAR, “implore the assistance of the patriotic women of the land.”[7]

[1] The number of spectators was given in numerous reports including Boston Daily Advertiser, September 18, 1877, 1; and “Dedication of the Boston Army and Navy Monument,” The Farmers’ Cabinet (Amherst, NH), September 25, 1877, 2. Chicago Daily Tribune, September 18, 1877, 2; and Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, UT), September 18, 1877, 1, among other reports, provide the number in the procession. Some reports place it at 30,000. The Chicago Daily Tribune report states it was the largest in Boston’s history.

[2] Boston Daily Advertiser, September 18, 1877, 1.

[3] “Boston’s Fete Grand Ceremonies,” New York Tribune, September 18, 1877, 10.

[4] Boston Daily Advertiser, September 18, 1877, 1.

[5] Boston Daily Advertiser, September 18, 1877, 1.

[6] Ian Delahanty, “The History and Legacy of the Grand Army of the Republic in Massachusetts,” Secretary of the Commonwealth, Mary R. Dearing, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the G.A.R. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1952) pioneered the study of the GAR as a political force, see thesis regarding pensions vii-viii. Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 112 acknowledges the role played by the GAR in influencing the Republican Party to support a broader pension system which she considers the foundation of the modern welfare state. Stuart McConnell, Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 19-21, also acknowledges the GAR’s role in shaping the pension system, though he is more concerned with their role in creating a conservative, nationalistic culture of patriotism.

[7] Horace Binney Sargent, “General Order No. 9, November 10, 1877,” reprinted in Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Massachusetts, Early History of the Department of Massachusetts, G.A.R., from 1866 to 1880 inclusive (Boston: E. B. Stillings & Co., 1895), 368.

Published by Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate

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