JP Observer: The Monument Soldier’s Eyes

I thought I knew Monument Square at the Centre and South Streets intersection well. How many times have I driven or walked by the landmark Civil War memorial with the soldier on top over the past 50 years? Like many residents, it must be thousands.

The island where the monument stands was set aside for the area’s first schoolhouse in 1676. It’s across from what was the town hall, Curtis Hall, built in 1868 across the street. 

The island is now a small but prominent, green park surrounded by wrought iron fencing, then pavement, on all sides. 

The late local historian Walter Marx wrote about the memorial in a 1989 article now on the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website.

The granite monument designed by architect W.W. Lummus in the Gothic revival style rests in the center of the island. It’s 27 feet tall with a 7-feet-tall Union soldier sculpted by Joseph Sala on top. In an opening in the center below the soldier is a white marble block with 23 names of Union soldiers who were buried from Texas to South Carolina on it.

Actually, 46 soldiers and sailors died from what was then the Town of West Roxbury, which also included what’s now Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. The 23 whose names were inscribed on the JP-located monument were from the West Roxbury part. Massachusetts sent 159,000 sailors and soldiers to fight in the Civil War. 

A West Roxbury Town Meeting in 1869 determined that a committee of eight men would choose a site and procure plans to build a memorial, and $15,000 could be spent, Marx reported. The finished Monument was dedicated on September 14, 1871. The cost turned out to be $22,000 for the monument and $3,500 for the statue.  

The life-like sculpture of a mustached Union soldier in uniform shows him paused at rest, hands on the end of the barrel of a long gun whose stock rests askew on the ground near his feet.

It was about a year ago I first really looked up at the statue—and right into the soldier’s eyes. I took pictures of him from various angles. I examined dozens of photos of soldiers balanced on military monuments similar to ours on line. On top many had statues of one soldier in uniform; several depicted a group. 

Unlike looking up at our Monument, looking up at the other memorials, people cannot look into those soldiers’ eyes. Most of the soldiers immortalized in stone are looking ahead at an invisible horizon or maybe to a future battle—not down so pensively as ours.

At first, I pitied our soldier with the lowered gaze.

These days I think he was traumatized by what he had seen and heard and felt fighting in the Civil War. He is thinking about who and what he lost, his own injuries still healing, perhaps.

And he is probably worrying, too, about the future of this country he fought for— its awful rift barely mended by the war. Division still a constant threat. Justice for Black people and others still not achieved.

Ours is a special war memorial, so much more authentic than most. I could find no record of the sculptor’s intention. But the soldier’s bowed head that Sala created asks all of us to ponder war itself and its aftermath, to think about justice in our nation, and our world—now as the past. 

Every time we go by it, we should pause somewhere secure in the square and, for a moment, look up into the soldier’s eyes. And think.

Sandra Storey is the founder and former publisher of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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