Hampden Park, in the center of the city of Holyoke, MA, is dedicated to the service of veterans from American wars since the Great Rebellion. Benches encircle the central feature of the park: a sixteen foot high monument dedicated July 4, 1876 to the 55 Holyoke Civil War soldiers lost to battle. In early July, Marc and I came to see the shrine as a way of investigation into the life of the city at the time of the Civil War. I had discovered a posted article on a website hosted by the Vermont CivilWar.Org(http://vermontcivilwar.org/units/2/streeterinjured.php) while Web-researching the character of Civil War memorials in towns and cities surrounding Easthampton.
Interest in Holyoke monument on the part of Don Streeter, Hampstead, NH who posted text of a 1960 Holyoke Transcript article on the unusual inaugural ceremony to the monuments, was inspired by the tragic death of one of Vermont’s own CW veterans, Charles C. Sawyer, who was mortally wounded by a freak canon explosion during the memorial service. A complete telling of the tragic inaugural day is documented in the Holyoke Transcript article at the Vermont database site.
Ten foot wide at the base, the monument rises with a seven foot stone block pillar that supports a beautiful bronze figure of Liberty in flowing robes with a solemn countenance. She raises a wreath of olive branches with her right arm, a determined gesture of merciful dedication. At her left side she steadies a shield that extends from her waist to the base and is emblazoned with stars across the top and vertical stripes that stretch to the base.
She faces to the West and the stone base itself is oriented face by face to the cardinal directions. The base is raised on an octagonal sort of garden a about a foot high from the walk and maybe four or five feet from each edge to the base of the monument. The bed may have once been well tended, but at this visit it was planted I am assuming in the spring with marigolds that since had been overgrown with witch grass and other weeds. A heavy cast iron fence that’s gate on the south that had been welded shut since its consecration surrounded the whole.
On the day of this visit, the benches that surround the park’s expansive cement walkway, city dwellers humped, leaned or lay in weary self-introspection. At our visit, a forlorn, poorly dressed and intoxicated veteran, noticing our interest, approached us to admire the monument along in unison, gave us a warm greeting, and then wandered off.
Holyoke was once a thriving factory town with grinding mills driven by a great, power-giving canal that pumped water from a damn to the east harnessing the Westfield River. Immigrants poured into the city in the mid-nineteenth century. High street, which borders the south part of the park, was lined with tall stores, banks and tenements decorated with Baroque-like Terracotta facades. To the north of the city, affluent neighborhoods with elaborate Victorian homes, large green swards and broad streets grew as the mill owners and managers prospered. Tenements that housed labor’s new arrivals lined street after street of the downtown district.
Today the streets have declined in repair, are crowded and dirty, and the people there have marginal employment, crime rates are challenging, poverty creeps as an enemy to progress. The mills stand empty leaving the city little to offer in the way of occupation even though some entrepreneurs have found creative uses for the vacant buildings as art studios or other new uses and the city officers struggle with revitalization plans for this canal district and other areas of the city, some that are daring and innovative but slow to take hold.
The monument itself though is inured to these shifts in fortune. It’s artistry is magnificent and meaning laden. Designed by H.G. Ellicott a former confederate officer who, as the Holyoke Transcript article referenced above claimed, rode with Mosby’s Rangers during the war (Note: Civil War historian and blogger, Robert Moore (http://cenantua.wordpress.com, is unable to find H.G. Ellicott on the roster of Mosby’s Rangers), the lines and volumes of the figure mirror the style of his contemporary more well-known Daniel Chester French who designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Ellicott’s talent for telling the story of war and of this war is impressive however, and in the four panels, inset into the base, one for each face, he reveals the tragedy of conflict most articulately.
The square panels are bronze relief insets perhaps 24 inches to a side.
On the south face, Ellicott tells the gripping heartbreak of the call to war. A wife, on the left, clings to her husband as he prepares to mount his horse. She clings to his left shoulder, her hold slipping away as he pulls to the right, his arm raised toward the right. He turns his face into to hers to suggest compassion for her sorrow however he signals to the call with his right. The bronze rendering of his hand has broken away as are other high relief features on all the panels, victim to vandalism or the elements. Perhaps his hand was an open palm, suggesting that fatal and unavoidable duty ahead of him. Perhaps the hand was pointing to the direction of the battle. Behind him is his steed, ready for battle, neck arched, pulling against its reigns, maw agape in a cry to conflict, foreleg raised, Romanesque-like, seeming to stamp on a lily motif that is climbing a garden wall in the background. In the center foreground of the composition a child, a son, arches into his father’s leg, holding him back with an unseen arm and gripping a rifle before his father, but looks away in resignation to the truth of the inevitable.
On the east face of the monument, the panel presents the power and horror of conflict. Eight combatants converge to the center and form a pyramid of armed, hand-to-hand struggle. Five soldiers on the right push against three whom return the force on the left. A central mounted figure, an officer, rallies his men to charge with a sword that no longer exists, another victim to the aging of the monument. Two pickets behind him fire a lethal volley toward the enemy to the left. A soldier in the foreground plunges forward with a missing rifle and bayonet.
Beneath him a young soldier as suggested by his minimal uniform, beard-free and fleshy face and curled locks, has fallen back and is about to be butted with a deathly blow by a rifle in the hands of a combatant leaning to in an opposing formation. Two other soldiers behind him hack and shoulder their way into the fray, but the force from the left seems overwhelming. The lines suggested by the limbs and actions of the composition present a series of “x’s” which convey a noisy syncopation suggestive of cacophonous battle.
Moving to the north face, a sorrowful scene of final vanquish unfolds. Three figures on the right face left anguished over a relief hovel suggestive of a grave. A tree, a barren oak rises from the grave. To the left of this in the deep background, two palms indicate that this is a scene located in the South, the Carolinas or Georgia perhaps. Behind the figures also far into the background but before the palms, what seems to have been a fine mansion with high windows lays in a shell of its former self, burned to its foundation or leveled with bombardment. The central figures, a boy and his mother form a grieving arch. She is collapsed on one knee, sobbing, heaving in agony to a raised palm to which she buries her face. He, to her right, between her and the grave, seems to endeavor to contain his own grief in order to comfort his mother. He os dressed in fine slacks and a waistcoat. He is a bit older than the child on the opposite face of the monument in the composition that speaks of the warrior headed off to conflict. That boy was holding his father back. This boy cradles his mother’s head with one arm and with the other pushes against the sight of the grisly grave. I find most curious the third figure in this composition. It is the figure of a man in field clothes, tattered trousers held up by a single suspender over the shoulder, a open faced shirt with one sleeve rolled up revealing a powerful forearm that’s hand grips a wide brimmed hat. The other arm leans toward on tumbled building blocks. The figure’s countenance has African-American features. He observes the grieving couple but his emotion to me is uncertain. Does he join them in their grief? Does he feel he feel troubled ambiguity? He clearly has serious regard for the matter—his expression is appropriately grave. This is the return of the fallen officer to his destroyed plantation, and the panel seems to say by the presence of what is unmistakably a released slave, “this is emancipation?” It is this panel to me that reveals the Confederate sympathies of the artist.
The west-facing panel develops the final denouement of war. Three soldiers in a shady copse tend to each other’s wounds. A forth, not far off to the right side of the panel observes. He shoulders a rifle, but it is not the defined grip as seen in a defiant march. The rifle is at rest on the arm; the soldier’s expression is one of exhaustion with maybe a tinge of relief. By the details of their uniforms, the covey of combatants represent both sides of the conflict, and in this scene their animosity is gone, completely replaced by a nursing camaraderie, each a succor to the other, and (do I project it?) each with a sense of the absurdity of their recent exposure to armed conflict. It is a beautiful panel and eloquent conclusion to the soliloquy of the monument.
Visual art does communicate intuitively whole worlds of meaning that words attempt to delimit to knowable, provable chunks. As the Great Rebellion permanently scratched the American proud and prosperous self-portrait, the images from the war’s wake can tell something of the social attempt to heal and create a newer order.
LATE Addendum: Please see the attached document authored by John Zwisler of the South Hadley Historical Socicety regarding Civil War memorial dedications in Holyoke and South Hadley. The he adds evidence that clears some questions arising from our original source, a 1960′s Holyoke Transcript newspaper article: