Martin Milmore: Boston’s Great Civil War Sculptor

The last of the more than 100 historical columns that I wrote for the Boston Tab and Allston-Brighton Tab newspapers between 1998 and 2002, this piece on the life and career of the noted Boston Sculptor Martin Milmore never appeared in print, nor was it included in either of my books of collected articles. Only recently, as I was as reviewing some of my published pieces for possible inclusion in this blog, did it I rediscover this piece. WPM

When the seven year old Irish immigrant arrived in Boston in 1851 in the company of his widowed mother and four brothers, few would have predicted his rapid rise to prominence in the world of American sculpture. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants were flocking into Boston in these years, refugees from the devastating Irish Potato Famine. Most were impoverished, uneducated, former cottagers, and Roman Catholic in religion.

Milmore photoMartin Milmore

The Milmores were, by contrast, middle class Protestants, who came with some financial resources. Martin’s father had graduated from a university, and prior to his death in early 1851, had held the post of schoolmaster in the port city of Sligo in northwestern Ireland. The senior Milmore also no doubt saw to his son’s early education. Given the strong bias against Irish-Catholics in Boston in the 1850s, Milmore’s Protestantism and educated middle class background no doubt facilitated his rapid rise.

Martin Milmore received his education at Boston’s Brimmer and Latin Schools, graduating from the latter institution in 1860. The Brimmer School, on Common Street, a discontinued street in the present Theater District, maintained very high academic standards in its day, and possessed a particularly fine school library. The master of this schoolhouse, Joshua Bates, Jr., was so impressed by Milmore’s artistic abilities that he long retained the boy’s chalk drawings, declaring them “unmistakable evidence of genius.” When the youth graduated from the Brimmer School, he did so as an honor student. During his several years at Latin School, Milmore also took art classes at the Lowell Institute, where he “studied industriously and successfully.”

Boston Latin School, 1860Boston Latin School on Bedford Street, Boston, 1860

Milmore’s training as an artist was facilitated by his older brother Joseph’s earlier success in the field. Three year’s Martin’s senior, Joseph Milmore at first worked chiefly in wood, and Martin began to develop his sculpting skills under Joseph in that medium. The brothers later collaborated on a number of important sculpting projects, most notably the sphinx at Mount Auburn Cemetery that one commentator has decribed as America’s most cryptic tribute to the Union dead.

Milmore sphinx, Mt. Auburn CemeterySphinx at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA, a collaborative work of the brothers Joseph and Martin Milmore

More critical to the boy’s artistic development, however, was the training he received in the 1860 to 1864 period at the hands of thet Boston sculptor, Thomas Ball, best remembered for his equestrian statue of George Washington situated in the Boston Public Garden.

In 1860—the same year he graduated from Latin School—Milmore called upon Ball at his newly established studio on the grounds of the Chickering Piano Company on Roxbury’s Tremont Street (a studio that had been outfitted specifically for the Washington statue) to ask to become his student.

Thomas Ball

The great Boston sculptor, Thomas Ball, under whom Milmore trained.

Ball recounted the incident in his 1892 autobiography Three Score and Ten as follows: “I had not been [at the new studio] an hour, before I heard a rap on the door. Upon opening it I was met by a bright looking boy who wished to know if I took pupils. I told him no; that I had never received pupils in my studio, although I was always happy to tell them anything and to impart to them any instruction in my power. He said he was very anxious to learn to model; he could not afford to pay much, but would give me all he could, if I would let him come. This I told him I must positively decline to do, as I was about to begin an important work which would occupy all my time and attention. At this he seemed so disappointed and begged so persistently, that I finally told him I would think of it and let him know the next day.”

The following day Milmore brought the older man some drawings he had asked to see. Ball was so impressed by this work that he offered the young man a bargain—he would give him instruction in sculpting, and allow him the use of a portion of his studio, at no charge, if Milmore would, in turn, agree to keep the studio clean and attend to its fires. Milmore, Ball recounted, was delighted [with this offer] and came, and remained with me for the next four years on these terms.

Chickering Piano Company BuildingThe Chickering Piano Piano Company Building on Boston’s Tremont Street, Roxbury, where Thomas Ball maintained his studio and where Milmore received his training as a sculptor.

Since Ball’s studio was a center of artistic life in Boston, frequented by many of the city’s civic and social leaders, Milmore’s work was seen by Boston’s patrons of the arts and he began to receive commissions. Among his earliest creations was a statue embodying his idea of “Devotion” for Boston’s 1863 Sanitary Fair which raised money for the care of injured soldiers and sailors.

More significant still was an 1864 commission to create three large statues in white granite to adorn the facade of Boston’s new Horticultural Hall, then under construction on Tremont Street opposite the Granary Burying Ground. The largest of these figure (the central element), which stood almost thirteen feet tall, was of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The other two, both eight feet tall, were of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Pomona, the goddess of fruit and fruit trees.

1865 Horticultural HallHorticultural Hall, Tremont Street, Boston, 1865. The largest of the three statues, Ceres, goddess of Agriculture, sat atop this striking French Second Empire-style building, while the other two were placed on either side of the second story level the facade. Sadly, this handsome structure no longer exists.

Milmore statues sculpted to adorn Boston's Horticultural Hall, now at Elmbank in Wellesley Mass.The three sculptures that Milmore created to adorn Boston’s 1865 Hortticultural Hall, are now displayed on the lawn in front of the Elmbank building in Wellesley, MA., the current headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Shortly after entering Thomas Ball’s studio, the Civil War erupted—an event that shaped Milmore’s subsequent career, since most of his primary works in the remainder of his short life would pay homage to the heroes, both military and civil, of the great conflict. The Civil War was fought while Milmore was 17 to 21 years of age, and of a draftable age. Since there is no record of his having served in the Union Army, it can be presumed that he hired a substitute, which makes his position as Boston’s premier Civil War memorialist somewhat ironic. On the other hand, to have lost such a promising artist on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War would have been a monumental artistic tragedy .

In addition to his Boston Civil War Monument, his most famous and most elaborate work, Milmore fashioned memorials to the Civil War dead for the following Massachusetts locations: Forest Hills Cemetery, Charlestown, Framingham, Fitchburg, Woburn, Amherst, as well as Peterborough, Keene and Claremont in New Hampshire, and Erie, Pennsylvania. It is chiefly as a sculptor of the Civil War memorials that he is remembered.

Boston Civil War Memorial, Boston Common

Milmore’s Civil War memorial, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, on the Boston Common

This most important commission of his career came in the late 1860s when the City of Boston hired Milmore to design a large Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument for Flagstaff Hill, the highest point on the Boston Common (renamed Memorial Hill at the time of the dedication of the work), a huge and costly project to which the city committed a substantial $75,000.

Milmore spent the years 1870 to 1875 in Rome, where he did most of the work on the Boston memorial. Many 19th century American sculptors spent long periods in Italy. Local sculptors in the “Eternal City” included Horatio Greenough, William Wetmore Story, Harriet Hosmer, and Milmore’s own teacher, Thomas Ball, who maintained a studio in Florence for many years.

The Boston Civil War Monument was a great critical success and became the model for other memorials around the nation. It is a work of “intrinsic beauty,” noted art historian Loredo Taft, which was quickly duplicated “in varying degrees of incompleteness and ineffectiveness over the whole of the United States.”

The monument is huge—some seventy feet high. A sixteen-foot high stone pedestal lies at its base, from which four more projecting pedestals emanate. Over this base rises a white Maine granite Doric column, surmounted by a bronze statue of a woman symbolizing the Genius of America.

The base of the Milmore Civil War MemorialThree of the four statues that sit on the four projecting pedestals at the base of Milmore’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the Boston Common.

In all, nine statues adorn the memorial. The four projecting pedestals support figures representing the North, South, East, and West. At the base of the column are four more statues representing the Soldier, the Sailor, History, and Peace. Between these figures one finds 5 1/2 feet wide bronze reliefs depicting such incidents as the initial departure of Masssachusetts troops, the activities of the Boston Sanitary Commission, a naval engagement, the return of the troops, and the delivery of captured battle flags in 1865 to Governor John A. Andrew. These reliefs contain portraits of the prominent figures of the era, furnishing a veritable who’s who of Boston’s Civil War leadership.

The following inscription, written by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, appears at the base of the monument: To the men of Boston who died for their country on land and sea, in the war which kept the Union whole, destroyed slavery, and maintained the constitution, the grateful city has built this monument, that their example may speak to coming generations.

The cornerstone was laid on September 18, 1871, and the completed monument dedicated on September 17, 1877. A huge parade was held on the latter occasion, in which some 25,000 people, including the entire state militia, Boston’s Civil War veterans, many leading generals, city and state officials, various Boston societies, and the city’s school children marched.

The major dedicatory address was delivered by United States Attorney General Charles Devens, himself a distinguished veteran of the war, with the event attended by President Rutherford B. Hayes, himself a former Civil War general, and most of the members of the Hayes cabinet.

Sadly. Martin Milmore survived the dedication of his greatest work only by six years, dying at his residence on Hammond Street in Roxbury Highlands in July 1883 of a liver ailment at the young age of thirty-nine.

French, The Angel of DeathThe Milmore Memorial, “The Angel of Death” by the sculptor’s good friend Daniel Chester French, sculptor/ architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was dedicated both to Martin Milmore and his older brother and fellow sculptor Joseph who predeceased him by a year. This work in stone and bronze is situated at the Milmore burial site in Boston’s historic Forest Hills Cemetery. It is widely regarded as the greatest memorial ever produced by an American sculptor.

As Alonzo Taft, former Secretary of War and father of future president William Howard Taft wrote of Boston’s great Civil War sculptor: Martin Milmore…deserves more than passing notice, not alone because of his early development and the rich promise which his death left unredeemed, but for the intrinsic value of much good work accomplished in the thirty-nine years of his busy life.

3 thoughts on “Martin Milmore: Boston’s Great Civil War Sculptor

  1. ELLIE wolf

    Tribute to those who maintained the sculptures and placed the, so appropriately. I admire the goddess influence and representing us females.

    Like

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