Boston’s Civil War Memory: A Student’s Reflection

Mount Auburn CemeteryIn response to the tour of Boston’s Civil War monuments that I took with my class last Thursday, I asked them to take some time and write up a short reflection about their experience. Overall, the short essays are very reflective and in some cases quite surprising in terms of what they came away with. Here is one example.

The field trip we took through Boston last week transformed my view of how the North, and specifically Boston, commemorated the Civil War. I hadn’t fully realized before this how prominent memories of the Civil War were and were aimed to be, through the monuments, in the few decades after. The monuments, I realized through looking at them, were supposed to be seen on a regular basis by people walking by, so that the Civil War still filled the consciousness of Boston and the North. It seems to me that the commemorators wanted this for two reasons: 1. They wanted to commemorate the people who died, and 2. The monuments could garner support for the causes of the war and for unity. And they could justify the war in a way, making the deaths of the soldiers seem noble and pulling Boston together under a mindset of unity and American pride. I was surprised that there were actually multiple monuments commemorating blacks and women who served in the war. I’ll discuss my favorite three monuments: the sphinx, Harvard’s Memorial Hall, and the Shaw Memorial.

The memorials in the cemetery were very beautiful, evidently creating the atmosphere of life – the deceased’s spirits living on – even after death. This was important specifically after the Civil War as they wanted Northern spirit and pride to live on, and this is always easier to accomplish when being shown examples of martyrs for the cause. The sphinx was in my opinion the most interesting monument we saw during the trip. The paradoxes created that uniqueness. The inscription on the monument and the figure itself represented a newfound unity in the nation that became possible because of the North’s victory. On the other hand, there is still racial  and gender tension present in the statue. The body is of a lion, an animal from Africa, and therefore it could represent the black force in America. The issue is that because the head has white features, the monument, whether this was deliberate or not, seems to enforce some notion that whites are the leaders and the brains of America, while blacks are more militant, primitive, and have a more physical role as laborers in America. The face also has feminine features, suggesting a peace and justice that women often represented. Perhaps it was also commemorating their role in the war.

Harvard’s Memorial Hall was beautiful. I’m a bit ambivalent about their decision to have only honored the students and alumni who died fighting for the Union and not the ones fighting for the Confederacy. However, it was obvious that the way they created the commemoration was so that people would often walk by and therefore have the Civil War be active in their consciousness. The beauty of the stained glass and of the room and plaques in general seemed to be an effort to somehow put a more definite, fateful, and Divine spin on the Civil War. One issue that many people faced after the war was a sense of what really was I fighting for? which can be evident even now, as there is a debate as to what exactly was the cause of the war. So making it seem like the Union’s ideals, causes for war, and soldiers all embodied the Latin words on the stained glass like virtue, honor, etc., and the beauty and upward-orientations of the hall created an atmosphere of definiteness and honor in a time of ambivalence about the war and its causes.

The Shaw Memorial was special because it is the only one we saw that vividly and directly memorialized the fallen black soldiers. I was impressed that the black soldiers in the statue had faces carved just as vividly as Shaw’s face. And it was important that the memorial talked about how the black soldiers were treated badly as soldiers, when the only enemy they have should have been facing was external.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

14 comments… add one
  • Nathan Towne Feb 25, 2014 @ 18:11


    It does not seem as though we agreed. I may not have done a good job laying out my positions on historical approach.

    Nathan Towne

  • Craig L. Feb 11, 2014 @ 17:59

    Didn’t there used to be a penalty for failing to correctly answer the riddle of the sphinx? How many times did Emerson use it as a symbol in creating his version of transcendentalism?

  • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 11:17

    Yes I have seen that article, it is one of the pieces that I was referencing. I would not classify myself as a proponent per se.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014 @ 12:19

      I found it to be incredibly helpful for my tour.

      • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 14:34

        Of course that is entirely your call but it is not so much for me. I am familiar with the monument as well as its dedication and I believe that Mrs. Giguere went too far beyond the historical record in her analysis of Bigelow’s intentions.

        Nathan Towne

        • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014 @ 14:38

          Why do you believe that Bigelow’s intentions exhaust the meaning that can be attached to this particular monument?

          • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 14:55

            I don’t, but when there is very clear and explicit textual evidence available which outlines the purpose of the monument from an authoritative and contemporary source, extrapolation through supposition and speculation is not always necessary, especially if that speculation is going to deal with the most dangerous water to tread in for a historian, societal influences upon on an individual, how they impacted this person and how they were expressed in a statement/monument e.t.c. There is certain knowledge that should be used as a backdrop to be sure, but it is dangerous to tread too far down that path.

            This is kind of turning into a larger discussion.

            Nathan Towne

            • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014 @ 15:05

              From your previous comment: “To attempt to incorporate themes like race/gender/hierarchy/class division e.t.c. into the field of historical interpretation is quite dangerous, although its proponents often don’t realize how so.”

              I guess I don’t understand this point since Bigelow himself raises issues of race and gender in his own writings.

              “What symbol can better express the attributes of a just, calm, and dignified self-reliance than one which combines power with attractiveness, strength of the lion with the beauty and benignity of woman?” – Bigelow

              • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 17:06

                When something becomes an issue historically, no matter what it may be, it should be dealt with. My point is with regards to the utilization of a historical approach aimed at trying to accentuate some theme, whatever that theme may be.

                There is a big difference between dealing with issues relating to women or to gender historically and approaching historical material from a say “feminist” tilt. Again, the object of the historian is always to mitigate rather than to accentuate bias. No?

                Nathan Towne

              • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 17:10

                Of course he did. I am saying that she listed dangerously close to ascribing motives to him that don’t seem to me borne out by the historical record. That is all.

                Nathan Towne

  • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 10:30

    Of course, but with this specific site Bigelow was very clear in the monuments intention and in its intended message. To attempt to incorporate themes like race/gender/hierarchy/class division e.t.c. into the field of historical interpretation is quite dangerous, although its proponents often don’t realize how so. The object of the historian is to mitigate bias, not to accentuate it, not that this can ever be fully achieved but it is nonetheless the goal that historians should strive for. It is a very slippery slope when one attempts to impose any hidden agenda, no matter what that may be, to a person or object as it necessarily reflects bias. It may serve a political predilection but deviating too far from the historical record is ultimately quite anti-intellectual.

    Nathan Towne

  • Nathan Towne Feb 11, 2014 @ 9:59


    This is awesome. Many men who were killed in action, from a litany of different Massachusetts regiments are buried in and around the Boston area including at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Nothing is more impactful than to stand at a gravesite of a man who ultimately went to his death during the War. We can never loose sight of the fact that in the end these are human and American stories. They are forever interwoven with ours, indissolubly entwined in the American Fabric.

    I will state that I believe that your student has misrepresented the Sphinx memorial, but that is ok. Glad to see students enjoying the trip.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014 @ 10:01

      I will state that I believe that your student has misrepresented the Sphinx memorial, but that is ok. Glad to see students enjoying the trip.

      Yes, but I have to wonder how many Americans from the day the monument was unveiled to today have misinterpreted that monument. As you know these sites welcome multiple interpretations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *