Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Portland’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands in memory to local men who died in the Civil War. It was dedicated 126 years ago this week, on Oct. 25, 1891.
The massive monument cost almost a million dollars, in today’s money. It took organizers nearly 20 years to raise the funds and get it built. Since then, the monument has become the heart of the city, a symbol of freedom and its cost. But Portland city government didn’t contribute a single cent or lift a finger to help get it built.
Jan. 6, 1873 marked the first meeting of the Portland Soldiers and Sailors Monument Association. Formed by veterans, businessmen and ordinary folk, the committee felt the city needed a suitable monument honoring its sacrifice to the Union cause. It first asked the city for money to help get it built. But the city refused. It was still rebuilding the town after the great fire of 1866.
For a while, not much got done after that. By the meeting held on Jan. 8. 1883, the Monument Association had only raised a grand total of $220.19. So, they elected new officers and devised a plan to canvas the town for donations on Memorial Day that year. By June, they had more than $5,000 in the coffers.
The next year, they stepped up fundraising efforts even more. The ladies’ auxiliary held a bewildering array of social events, including a six-day fair. Association members canvased the city, door-to-door. They created fancy, engraved subscription certificates for wealthy donors.
Small, unsolicited donations trickled in for years from distant, aging veterans. They were often in memory of comrades who died in the war.
By July 1884, they had over $15,000 and started taking design proposals.
Future Mayor James P. Baxter came forward with one plan. He called for an ornate, pantheon-inspired building. It would be a kind of shrine and repository for Civil War relics and records. His idea went nowhere, though, and he stopped participating in the committee’s work.
New York architect Henry O. Avery suggested a grand, 100-foot octagonal tower. It would give visitors access to breathtaking views. Avery had already submitted unsuccessful designs for Grant’s tomb in New York and a Civil War monument in New Haven.
Many others submitted designs, too. They including Portland architects Francis Fassett and John Calvin Stevens. The Monument Association didn’t like any of them.
Finally, in 1887, they decided to put it all in the hands of nationally recognized — and Maine-born — sculptor Franklin Simmons. He’d already produced several war memorials. Simmons was also responsible for the spectacular Naval Monument in Washington, D.C. Later, he also sculpted the Longfellow monument in Portland.
Meanwhile, the Monument Association had to find a spot for their as-yet-unseen monument. It didn’t go easy for them.
They at once knew they wanted to put it in Market Square, in the heart of the city. The problem was, the old City Hall still stood there. So, they approached city officials about tearing it down. As is often the case in government, they passed the buck and appealed to the Maine Legislature to make the call. The Legislature also declined to act and stated it had to go to a referendum vote in Portland.
The debate raged in city newspapers for months. The Portland Daily Press was against it. The old City Hall was being rented out at the time and it argued the loss of city income was unacceptable.
In the end, on March 14, 1887, voters approved the location by a vote of 4,181 to 1,945. Then, in a convoluted move, Portland officials asked the Legislature to take the land from them by eminent domain, which they did. They gave it back to the city when the monument was done.
In the summer of 1888, Simmons created the bronze sculptures for the monument in his studio in Italy. The main piece was a 15-foot allegorical female figurine for the top. She later gained the name “Our Lady of Victories.” He also made two groups of men for either side of the base. One was for the Army and the other for the Navy.
In the center of the Navy men stands Adm. David G. Farragut, hero of the battles of New Orleans and Mobile Bay. The officer in the Army group is the obscure Brig. Gen. Francis L. Vinton.
Vinton was born at Fort Preble, Maine, where his father had been a captain of artillery in the Army. He led troops from the 43rd New York in many Civil War Battles including Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
Why Simmons chose these two men, in particular, is unknown.
The Monument Association hired New Yorker Richard Morris Hunt to design the base. He also designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The original plan called for a bronze plaque emblazoned with the names of Portlanders who died in the war. But the association could find no accurate lists of the dead and scrapped the idea.
By 1889, the pedestal, made from Jay granite, stood in the square, waiting for the bronze figures. They sealed an 18-inch copper box, filled with documents and photographs, inside the cornerstone.
In late 1890, Simmons finished casting the statues. They went on display in Rome and thousands came to look, including the king and queen of Italy.
In April 1891, Simmons had the pieces crated and ready for shipping. But he had trouble finding a boat big enough to accept the massive figures. The only suitable freighter turned out to be also carrying loose sulphur. So, the magnificent lady, and her Army and Navy companions, made their trip to the United States buried under tons of the foul smelling stuff.
They arrived safely in Portland on June 15 and took their places five days later. The Monument Committee hired the Portland firm of Mequire and Jones — which is still in business — to make lamps and a fence to go around the whole structure.
Then, after 18 years, and $35,800, Portland’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument was finally finished.
It stands now not just as a memorial for those who died in the Civil War. It also represents the victory achieved by those Portlanders who didn’t give up in their quest to get it built.
Note: I am very much indebted to a booklet about the history of the Soldiers and
Sailors Monument written by Portland historian extraordinaire William B. Jordan.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.