But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration

But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration

As Confederate Civil War monuments continue to come under siege for their white supremacist representations of the nation’s most transformative conflict,[1] Union Civil War monuments and their inscriptions exist in an illusory realm of public approval. In fact, there is an inherent belief among many people that Union Civil War monuments––by their very nature––exemplify the antithesis of a proslavery racist South. As Thomas J. Brown points out, however, “[a]part from those that included the end of the Gettysburg Address, less than 5 percent of known Union inscriptions refer explicitly to the abolition of slavery as an achievement celebrated by the monument.”[2] By failing to acknowledge the Union victory as a long-overdue deliverance of the egalitarian principles under which the nation was founded, Northern Civil War monuments contributed to a collective historical ignorance that surrounded the war’s meaning and memory for decades. Rather than make a definitive statement on the Civil War’s emancipationist outcomes, the vast majority of Union monuments bypassed the issue of slavery altogether and instead expressed the war’s purpose in far more temperate terms.

Soldiers’ Monument, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

To be clear, Union and Confederate monuments do not offer homogeneous depictions of the Civil War. Northerners prided themselves on their victory over the South, and for the most part the public monuments honoring their sacrifices reflected that sentiment. Across the entire region, Union monuments in various constructs celebrated the preservation of the United States and the defeat of a rebellious South.[3] Still, in the frenetic postwar race to erect tangible interpretations of the war’s legacy, Northerners and Southerners found common ground. In their physical manifestations and their inscriptions, Confederate and Union memorials generally paid nondescript homage to the soldiers who had periled or lost their lives in the war. While many Northern monuments touted guardianship of the Union as the main impetus for war, and Southern monuments conversely pointed to states’ rights, the question of whether or not this was a war to abolish slavery remained unclear. In fact, anyone visiting Civil War monuments in either region was likely to get the impression that the war had nothing at all to do with emancipation.[4]

Although the past twenty plus years of Civil War scholarship has produced a significant number of memory studies, very few have focused exclusively on Union monuments and their inscriptions. Nevertheless, in the studies that do include analyses of Northern Civil War commemoration, two predominant themes have clearly emerged. In Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, Kirk Savage asserts that in order to perpetuate the nation’s ingrained framework of white supremacy, Northerners and Southerners deliberately constructed monuments that disregarded the war’s emancipationist purpose.[5] Likewise, in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight argues that in the interest of maintaining a deeply-rooted antebellum racial hierarchy, soldiers’ monuments emphasized reconciliation and neglected the war’s abolitionist aims.[6] In contrast, scholars such as Gary Gallagher and Caroline Janney maintain that Union Civil War commemoration was hardly an exercise in rapprochement, and instead argue that Northern monuments exalted the Unionist cause.[7] More recently, Thomas J. Brown’s Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America “reframes” leading reconciliationist theories to argue that by the 1930s Civil War monuments reflected the county’s transformational adoption of military principles.[8]Differing historical interpretations notwithstanding, however, one thing remains true: the overwhelming number of Northern Civil War monuments make no reference to slavery whatsoever.[9]

Perhaps a closer look at one of the few Northern monuments to candidly announce emancipation as a Civil War outcome will help further illuminate the deficiencies of the vast majority of those that did not. Erected in 1874, the Soldiers’ Monument in Fitchburg, Massachusetts represents a clear case of anti-reconciliatory monument building. Dedicated to those from Fitchburg who “SECURED THE UNITY OF THE REBUBLIC, / AND THE FREEDOM OF AN OPPRESSED RACE,” the Soldiers’ Monument announced to everyone who visited that the Civil War served the unmistakable dual purpose of safeguarding the Union and emancipating four million slaves from bondage.[10] As a small New England town with profound connections to its Revolutionary heritage, Fitchburg’s Unionist convictions were entrenched in the community. The town was also an epicenter of antislavery activism in the mid-1800s and many locals worked directly with prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and a host of others. This abolitionist ideology mixed with the community’s memory of the Revolution to produce a Soldiers’ Monument that anchored Fitchburg’s Unionist and emancipationist understanding of the Civil War for decades.[11]

Soldiers’ Memorial, Worcester, Massachusetts

Just thirty miles down the road from Fitchburg in Worcester, Massachusetts, however, residents completely ignored the issue of slavery in their Civil War commemoration. This is telling as not only was Worcester a hotbed of abolitionism in the antebellum era, but fifteen African Americans from Worcester volunteered for service with the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, twenty-two served in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, five joined the 55th Colored Regiment of Massachusetts, some served with Colored regiments in Rhode Island, and still others volunteered to fight in units outside of New England. Moreover, Worcester resident and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson took command of the 1st South Carolina Colored Infantry in November, 1862.[12] Yet, rather than build a monument that voiced the community’s support for emancipation and universal civil rights, Worcester’s Soldiers’ Monument was dedicated to the memory of the men who gave their lives “For the Unity of the Republic.”[13] Like all Civil War memorials, both the Fitchburg and Worcester Soldiers’ Monuments were intended to sustain a lasting memory of the community’s interpretation of the causes and consequences of the conflict. Although both communities saw the war––at least in part––as a battle for the abolition of slavery, only one of them chose to honor that objective in their monument.

Fitchburg’s adjoining town of Leominster, Massachusetts illustrates a slowly evolving change in the way that one Northern community dealt with the issue of slavery in regards to Civil War monument construction. Erected in 1866, just one year after the war ended, the Soldiers’ Monument in Leominster made no mention of either slavery or union. Instead of declaring any specific cause or outcome of the Civil War, the monument was simply dedicated in “HONOR TO THE BRAVE.” In 1998, however, the people of Leominster redefined the community’s understanding of the Civil War with a monument that commemorated the service of Oliver E. Hazzard, an African American resident who fought with the 54thMassachusetts Infantry. The monument not only features a sculpture of Hazard in his uniform, but it is also inscribed with language that clearly contextualizes the Civil War in emancipationist tones: “THIS MEMORIAL IS DEDICATED / TO HONORING THE MEMORY OF / ALL LEOMINSTER SOLDIERS / WHO SERVED WITH COURAGE / FOR FREEDOM AND JUSTICE. / WE MUST WE CAN AND WE WILL BE FREE.”[14]

Oilver Hazard Monument, Leominster, Massachusetts

Although Leominster was a place that fostered antislavery activity and often collaborated with abolitionists from Fitchburg and Worcester, the town did not imbue their Civil War monument with any emancipationist significance.[15]Rather, they chose to commemorate a generic version of wartime valor only. The timing of the 1998 Hazard Monument, moreover, is likely an outgrowth of the unyielding efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. This long delay in Leominster’s recognition of the abolition of slavery as a direct consequence of the Civil War demonstrates the glacial pace at which most Northern communities shifted their viewpoints, and further highlights the progressive mindset of the people of Fitchburg in the mid-nineteenth century.

This very limited examination of Northern Civil War monuments in central Massachusetts reveals three very different approaches to the question of slavery and how it was remembered within the context of the war. Because the Fitchburg Soldiers’ Monument represents an anomaly of Union Civil War commemoration, it also exposes an intentional forgetting in the great majority of all other Northern monuments. Over time, the abandonment of the Civil War’s emancipationist implications helped muddle the war’s true meaning. By emphasizing the preservation of the Union and ignoring the issue of slavery, most Northern monuments helped engrave an obscured memory of the war in both the landscape and minds of the nation. This deliberate erasure also hindered the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States. As such, a concerted effort by modern historians to determine why exactly so many Northern monuments disregarded the war’s fundamental issue of slavery will add considerably to our understanding of Civil War memory. In fact, studies that spotlight the shortcomings of Northern Civil War monuments will likely reveal as much––if not more––about the Civil War and its aftermath as those that focus entirely on their notorious Lost Cause counterparts.


[1] Alisha Ebrahimji, Lauren M. Johnson, and Artemis Moshtaghian, “Confederate Statues Continue to Come Down: Here’s What We Know,” CNN.com, last modified July 1, 2020, accessed August 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/09/us/confederate-statues-removed-george-floyd-trnd/index.html.

[2] Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 37.

[3] Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 106.

[4] Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, 35-39.

[5] Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[6] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 199.

[7] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 156-159; Janney, Remembering the Civil War, 106-107.

[8] Thomas J. Brown, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 9.

[9] Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, 37.

[10] Report of the Soldiers’ Monument Committee, of the City of Fitchburg (Fitchburg, MA: Printed at the Office of Henry F. Piper, 1874).

[11] On Fitchburg’s involvement in the American Revolution see, Rufus C. Torrey, History of the Town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts (Fitchburg, MA: J. Garfield, Printer, 1836), 63-85; J.F.D. Garfield, “Fitchburg’s Response to the Lexington Alarm,” April, 18, 1892, in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society and Papers Relating to the History of the Town Vol. I. (Fitchburg, MA: Fitchburg Historical Society, Sentinel Printing Company, 1895), 113-122; Doris Kirkpatrick, The City and the River (Fitchburg, MA: Fitchburg Historical Society, 1971), 105-113. On Fitchburg’s deep engagement with abolitionism and the antislavery movement see, Martha Snow Wallace, My Father’s House (Boston, MA: George H. Ellis Co., 1915); Martha E. Crocker, “The Fugitive Slave Law and its Workings,” June 18, 1894, in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 220-228; Kirkpatrick, The City and the River, 193, 235, 238, 259-271.

[12] Abijah P. Marvin, History of Worcester in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester, MA: Published by the author, 1870), 397-398.

[13] George Crompton, E. B. Stoddard, Charles A. Chase, Dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument at Worcester, Massachusetts, July 15, A. D. 1874 (Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1874), 10.

[14] Thomas K. Hazzard, Diane M. Sanabria, Robert Cormier, Images of America: Leominster (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999), 80. The author of this Blog post has verified in person the inscriptions on the Leominster Soldiers’ Monument and the Oliver E. Hazard Monument.

[15] Michael Bennett, Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 20; Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898), 132.

Darren Barry

Darren Barry is an independent scholar and United States history teacher at Montachusett Regional High School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He has published works in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts and African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs. Barry is currently working on a manuscript that explores the struggle of African Americans to reclaim their history, public image, and identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

15 Replies to “But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration”

    1. Hi Danny,

      It is my purpose to understand why the overwhelming majority of Northern Civil War monuments deliberately ignored the fundamental issues of slavery and emancipation in the war’s causes, outcomes, and memory.


  1. Darren, I think you miss the obvious point. It was fundamentally not a war fought by the Union for emancipation, save by the USCTS. It was a war to avenge an attack on the Union by the Confederates at Sumter, and to prevent further seizures of federal possessions in the territories. Can’t backfill.

    1. John,

      If you do not believe that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War, then I’m afraid you are the one who is missing the obvious point.


    2. Civil War Memory: The Northern States did not fight the South to free the slaves. Emancipation was a war measure to disrupt Southern society and Stop England from reconizing the Confederacy, as an independent Nation state.

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