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  • "The Americanized Sphinx":Civil War Commemoration, Jacob Bigelow, and the Sphinx at Mount Auburn Cemetery
  • Joy M. Giguere (bio)

Published in 1905, The New Mediterranean Traveller puzzled over a unique monument situated facing the chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts: "In one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the United States stands to-day, as a soldier's monument, the image of the youth-devouring female monster of the Grecian myth!"1 The monument referred to here is the Egyptian Revival Sphinx, and while having been available for public viewing for only thirty-three years, it had already become, much like its counterpart on the Giza Plateau, an enigma for many who saw it. At the time of its creation, however, the sculpture was far less inscrutable. Designed and paid for by Dr. Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879) and unveiled to the public with a small ceremony in 1872, the monument served to memorialize the "great events" that had taken place and to express gratitude to the soldiers who died, in Bigelow's words, "to achieve the greatest moral and social results of modern times." In short, like so many other monuments then being constructed throughout the North, the imposing Sphinx, having been "restore[d] for modern application," commemorated the two signal achievements of the Civil War: the preservation of the Union and the abolition of southern slavery.2

Beyond this fairly typical function, however, the Sphinx is arguably the most visually radical monument constructed in the history of Civil War commemoration. Combining an Anglo-American woman's face, the body of a lion, and decidedly American and Egyptian symbols, it embodies a racially fused population in the postwar landscape, one in which white and black Americans would work toward a future of what Bigelow called "illimitable progress."3 Abandoning many contemporary commemorative artistic conventions in favor of an entirely new image that would be representative of the postwar nation, Bigelow was neither a slavery advocate nor a believer in racial equality, and he tempered the radical nature of the Sphinx with the underlying conservative message that the blended nation would not necessarily be a nation of equals. [End Page 62]

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Figure 1.

Visitors with the Sphinx at Mount Auburn Cemetery, circa 1870s (Courtesy Mount Auburn Historical Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts).

Whither Sphinx?

As a Civil War memorial, an example of the Egyptian Revival, and situated as it is in America's first rural garden cemetery, the Sphinx is a striking monument that could be addressed by a number of historical fields of study. Yet even as much has been written about Civil War memory and commemoration, nineteenth-century rural cemeteries and public art, and even on the Egyptian Revival in America, most scholarship on these topics is remarkably silent concerning the history of the Sphinx and how it is [End Page 63] situated in these areas.4 The Sphinx does receive brief attention in Thomas Brown's essay on Boston monuments in the edited volume of essays on the 54th Massachusetts regiment, Hope and Glory, and in Peggy McDowell and Richard E. Meyer's The Revival Styles in American Memorial Art; and a lengthy overview of its history and the significance of Jacob Bigelow appear in Blanche Linden's seminal work on Mount Auburn Cemetery, Silent City on a Hill. By and large, however, there has been no substantial analysis of the Sphinx and its significance within the context of post-Civil War commemoration.5

This is perhaps due, at least in part, to the fact that the Sphinx simply does not fit into conventional histories of postwar memory and monument-building. A number of monographs considering how the process of fashioning postwar memory transpired throughout the North have been published since the 1990s, and as they have shown, the process in the North of erecting public monuments and fashioning a community's memory about the Civil War was achieved through the efforts of committees—typically groups of civic-minded professional middle-class white men who established consensus with each other over what, exactly, their monuments, Decoration Days, and other public rituals would memorialize. By and large, the theme of white reconciliation...


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