- The Real War Will Never Get in the Statues
Atop the central hill that rises to the highest point in Boston Common stands the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument dedicated by the city in 1877 to residents who died in the Civil War. Martin Milmore’s commonplace design features a fluted column surmounted by a female image of America, supported by a base with a cycle of bas-reliefs, and surrounded by allegorical statues of History and Peace and generic statues of a soldier and a sailor. The eye-level reliefs depict prominent local personalities in a sculptural history of the war, from the mobilization of the community through the celebration of the troops’ triumphant return. Wendell Phillips, who had sat for a portrait bust by Milmore a few years earlier, admired the artistry of the monument but criticized its representation of history:
This otherwise perfect column has one defect,—the one I have noticed in every city and town monument raised since the war. For anything these marble records tell, the war might have been like that of 1812, for ‘free trade and sailors’ rights,’ or for a north-eastern boundary. You search in vain through them all for the broken chain or the negro soldier. Milmore has done better than his fellows; for he gives us, in one bas-relief, the stern and earnest face of J.B. Smith, a suggestion welcome and honorable. He should have done more. Perhaps some time it can be mended, and a broken chain and negro form tell what really saved the Union. 1
Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves examines the history of the commemorative goal that Phillips envisioned and its relationship to the monuments with which Americans so prolifically remembered the Civil War and marked their civic landscape. With one crucial exception, Phillips’s hopes remained unfulfilled. Rather than celebrating emancipation and turning to African Americans to embody the new national identity, the vast effort to express the meaning of the war through public art narrowed into a long parade of generals on horseback, soldiers in courthouse squares, and bronze and marble Lincolns. Savage’s distinctive emphasis is the way in which [End Page 699] emancipation, while thus largely unrealized as a commemorative subject, nevertheless shaped the works that emerged as official cultural icons. Inviting comparison with Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992) and Eric Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations (1993), he explores the significance of race in the formation of a monumental canon.
This approach complements previous studies of the black image in white art, most notably Albert Boime’s The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century (1990). Boime’s discussion of emancipation, written as a dialogue with Freeman Henry Morris Murray’s pioneering Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture (1916), remains close to the project of cataloguing and reading all contemporary depictions of African Americans. Savage focuses on a different, if overlapping, set of works and applies some additional methods. He expertly situates his public monuments within the visual repertory circulating in contemporary prints, statuettes, and cemetery markers, but he keeps clearly in sight the goal of explaining a core group of monuments. As a result, he devotes less attention than Boime to uninfluential images that happen to appear in public sculpture. On the other hand, Savage’s argument that emancipation racialized commemoration leads him beyond an analysis of African American figures to detailed examination of the whiteness expressed in famous monuments to Lincoln and Lee and in the ubiquitous vernacular statues of common soldiers.
Tracing this canon as it emerged, Savage recovers unrealized possibilities and profound ironies in the imagination of emancipation. In untangling the complicated story of the Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, for example, he centers on the radical design proposed by Harriet Hosmer and originally adopted by the monument committee. Awareness of this alternative points up the tragedy that the campaign culminated in Thomas Ball’s ill-nicknamed Emancipation Monument (1876). Savage stresses that...