- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

“Sleepy Hollow. In this quiet valley, as in the palm of Nature´s hand, we shall sleep well when we have finished our day,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1855.

Thus Emerson, plus fellow Concord, Mass., residents Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and William Ellery Channing - giants in American intellectual circles and great writers - were all laid to rest on Author´s Ridge, located inside the shaded, curving lanes of this most bucolic, deliberately designed “Rural Cemetery.”

In 1914, the Boston Transcript described Sleepy Hollow as “one of the most romantic burial grounds in America.” Before visitors can contemplate the final resting places of Emerson and his companions, however, they must pass one of the most compelling and enigmatic Civil War memorials found above or below the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Melvin Memorial, also called “Mourning Victory,” is the handiwork of another Concord native, renowned sculptor Daniel Chester French. It honors three of Concord´s citizen-soldiers, men who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War. Michael Richman, editor of the Daniel Chester French Papers, argues that the Melvin Memorial “is the single most important sculpture during his prolific six-decade career.”

Killed in battle

Asa, John and Samuel Melvin, all members of Company K of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, were remembered by their youngest brother, James, also a Union veteran.

Twenty-seven-year-old Asa Melvin, a Concord farmer and the oldest of the trio, enlisted April 19, 1861, the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, answering the call to defend the Union just as the Minutemen had been summoned to defend their homes against the British in 1775.

He saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run, after which his 100-day tour expired. He re-enlisted in August 1862, with the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, and then re-enlisted for a third tour of duty in 1863. Asa was killed before the Battle of Petersburg on June 16, 1864, and his remains were interred in a mass grave in Spotsylvania, Va. According to colleague Col. J. Payson Bradley, Asa was “a good soldier, spoken well of by all his comrades and officers.”

Death by disease

John Melvin, 20, enlisted in 1861 in the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. He was the second son of Asa Melvin and Caroline Heald Melvin. When the Civil War erupted, he was working with his younger brother Samuel in the textile industry of Lawrence, Mass.

Company Capt. William H. Merrow, a friend, comrade and fellow resident of Lawrence, said, “John was an exceedingly good soldier. He was a man who kept his equipments and clothing in perfect shape at all times. No sudden call for any inspection ever found John Melvin unprepared.”

Like many other Civil War soldiers, John succumbed to disease, dying of dysentery Oct. 13, 1863, in the military hospital at Fort Albany, Va. Keeping a bedside vigil were his brothers and an Army chaplain, at John´s request. Samuel recorded in his diary that the opium dispensed to John “did no good” and described John’s death thusly: “The doctor said he could not live until Noon. I was with him all the time. … He failed very fast from the middle of the afternoon and died very easy at last at 11 o’clock at night.”

John’s body was returned to Concord and was buried in the Melvin family plot in Sleepy Hollow alongside the grave of his mother, Caroline, who had died earlier in 1863. John is the only one of the three brothers buried in Sleepy Hollow.

Andersonville

During Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Samuel Melvin, 20, who enlisted at the same time as his brother John, was captured at Harris Farm, Va., on May 19, 1864. Of the five other members of Company K who were captured, four, including Samuel Melvin, would perish at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. He died there Sept. 25, 1864. His diary is considered an important primary source of a soldier’s experience at Andersonville, and its text was included in the Melvin Memorial’s monument dedication book.

Capt. Merrow said Samuel was “sedate, studious … an inventive genius,” a nod to Samuel’s penchant for tinkering and his interest in galvanic batteries and electricity.

For the youngest of the four brothers, James, it was a singular goal to see their service honored, so in 1906, he turned to his childhood friend, French, who by then had become one of America’s premier public sculptors.

There is no record of correspondence between patron and sculptor before the signed contract, but evidence suggests French recommended a design originally intended for a memorial to Union soldiers from Connecticut who perished at Andersonville, for the national cemetery there. In the end, Connecticut had chosen another sculptor to create its Andersonville memorial. In early 1907, French, after visiting the intended site in Sleepy Hollow, wrote James Melvin, saying, “It is going to be a beautiful place for the monument.”

Larger than life

The Melvin Memorial was one of many major public sculpture collaborations between French and his architect friend Henry Bacon, building a spectacular record that culminated in the 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. After viewing the site, French and Bacon settled on a design blending strong geometric lines - vertical with a 20-foot-high shaft and a horizontal platform measuring 25 feet. An exedra (bench) is on each side of the pink Knoxville marble shaft and sculpture.

The centerpiece of the Melvin Memorial is the larger-than-life angel of “Mourning Victory.” In a previous design, for author and historian Francis Parkman, French experimented with a figure of an American Indian emerging from a marble shaft, but aesthetic problems remained unresolved with the completed work.

With the Melvin, French found success, sculpting a beautiful figure stepping forward from the depths of the marble in high relief. The image gives the impression of the angel moving from a place of darkness deep inside the memorial shaft and stepping out into the light.

Standing in front of the memorial, one encounters a female angel shrouded in a deftly cut American flag. Lifting the veillike flag, her left hand holds aloft laurels of victory, while her right arm, perpendicular to the memorial platform, gracefully holds up the shrouded flag from her face. Hair billows behind her head and then presumably down her back.

The pose of the face is sublime as “Mourning Victory” gazes down at three bronze memorial panels, each bearing a Civil War musket garlanded with a laurel victory wreath and the names and death circumstances of the three Melvin brothers. The eyes, closed and sad, are yet somehow sweet.

Behind the flag, the tip of the right wing is exposed, with flaps of the flag gently draped forward, providing the necessary space for the artist to complete his composition. The flag continues to wind around the torso of the angel, giving the added sense of motion as the angel moves forward. Her right knee is flexed, adding to the dynamic of forward movement. Directly beneath the figure of “Victory,” gracefully etched in stone, are these words:

“In memory of three brothers born in Concord who as private soldiers gave their lives in the war to save the country this memorial is placed here by their surviving brother, himself a private soldier in the same war.

I with uncovered head

Salute the sacred dead

Who went and who return not.”

Piccirilli Brothers

Like all sculptors of the period, French worked out his design in clay models, called maquettes. He experimented in his Stockbridge, Mass., studio, Chesterwood, finally putting up a full-scale clay model, which he ingeniously moved in and out of his studio by means of a railroad track and platform. Lighting effects are critical in all works of sculpture, and this device helped seal French’s ability to work in all manner of light conditions.

Most sculptors had three years from signing a contract to delivery of the finished product. French rarely fell behind in his work and was always punctual in delivery. James Melvin and French agreed to terms in 1906, and the sculpture was dedicated in 1909.

Once the full-scale clay model was completed, it was sent to the Bronx, N.Y., to the workshop of the Piccirilli Brothers, the most respected and competent stone-carving firm in the United States. The Piccirrilis were responsible for many of the stone statues of sculptors in the age of great Civil War memorial making. By using a device called a pointing machine, the Italian immigrants took careful measurements from the model and transferred them to marble, from which they chiseled away the rock.

It is testimony to the skills of the Piccirillis that they were able to work around a major faux pas of both sculptor and architect. Neither French nor Bacon had taken into consideration the approach route in Sleepy Hollow. Their design called for the sculpture to have the left arm holding up the flag, with the laurel branches held aloft by the right arm. Had the design been completed this way, the angel’s face would not be visible to those entering the cemetery, as it would be blocked by the flexed left arm. By the time French and Bacon realized their mistake, the full-scale model was complete. The Piccirillis were forced to work backward to execute the design as it is seen today, a challenge they successfully mastered.

Favorable review

Clearly, the sculptor was pleased with the work, gushing in a letter to his brother, “I have seldom put up anything that I think of with as much satisfaction,” and in a letter to his friend Newton MackIntosh, “I want you to see the Melvin Memorial when the grading is finished. … I have seldom felt as happy over any of my works after they were set up.”

Monumental News,the late 19th- and early 20th-century trade journal for sculptors and their associates, critiqued the memorial favorably after the dedication in June 1909. In an article titled “Mr. French´s Fine Melvin Memorial,” itreported, “Fortune favored [French] both in his conception and in the opportunity offered him, a single figure watching over a lonely hillside. A work of art depends so much on the absence of disturbing influences to make its due appeal that this opportunity is but seldom found. In this case, the monument is backed by a low, wood-covered hill into which it is built, with retaining walls on the back and sides.”

Aging veterans

Wednesday, June 19, 1909 - 45 years to the day after John Melvin was killed - turned out to be a glorious day in Concord. Eighty-five brothers-in-arms from the Melvins’ unit accepted the invitation from James Melvin to attend the dedication ceremonies, arriving at 9:52 a.m. on two special train cars from Boston.

The aging veterans, many white-bearded, mustachioed and wearing fedoras, bowlers and straw hats, were taken by special carriages to the assembly point, the armory of Company I, 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, where they lined up by companies in the drill hall.

The program began at 11 a.m. as 20 members of the Old Concord Post, No. 180, Grand Army of the Republic, escorted the members of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery the short distance to Sleepy Hollow. Some of the veterans hobbled on canes.

Bradley opened the program, sounding assembly on the same bugle he had used 45 years earlier to initiate the assault on Petersburg. The Grand Army Glee Club then sang “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground,” which was followed by recitation of a poem, “Move Softly,” written especially for the occasion by 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery veteran William Sharrock.

The Glee Club followed with a rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then came a round of patriotic speeches, including the principal dedicatory address, delivered by Bradley, in which he linked the Melvin brothers to a larger cause.

“I feel, comrades, that no words of mine can add to those which are on this memorial,” Bradley said. “We are glad to be here in such large numbers today. … We are glad of this beautiful sunshine, reminding us of this day 45 years ago. But above all, comrades, I know what is in your minds.

“To have fought for a country like ours was a great privilege, but to be permitted to live 40-odd years to enjoy some of the fruits of that victory is a privilege for which we thank our Heavenly Father. It was not their privilege to see in the flesh what their sacrifices have wrought, but we believe that today in spirit our three comrades are with us.”

Wreaths then were placed on each of the three memorial tablets. The exercises concluded with Bradley playing taps.

The contingent then marched back to town, where a banquet was held at the Colonial Inn. More speeches followed, including one by James Melvin.

“At the close of the war,” he said, “I was a poor lad of 17, with no assets except what nature had given me. At that time, I made a vow that I would sometime erect a fitting memorial to my three dead brothers. For more than 40 years, this has been in my mind, and it is nearly 30 years since Mr. French, one of the friends of my youth, was consulted. … The result is the beautiful and inspiring monument, which you today have dedicated. … May it forever stand, a memorial to these three brave soldiers, and, what is of vastly greater importance, an inspiration to future generations to follow the path of duty though it may lead, as it did with these brothers, to that greatest sacrifice that can be made by man.”

The replica

The story of “Mourning Victory” did not end in Concord. It was hailed immediately as a great piece of American art, with the Boston Transcriptcalling it one of French´s “most exalted and most inspired” works.

The art community was so taken with the work that French was asked in 1915 to complete a replica to be placed in New York City´s Metropolitan Museum of Art. French, a trustee of the museum, was delighted.

Today’s visitors to the museum will note that this time the execution of the sculpture was as French had originally envisioned it, with the left arm and hand held aloft. Installed with little fanfare, the Metropolitan´s version of “Mourning Victory” stands vigil over the sculpture garden of the museum´s American Wing.

James A. Percoco teaches at West Springfield High School and is history educator-in-residence at American University. He is the author of “Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments” (Fordham University Press, 2008). He would like to express his thanks to Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator, and William Munroe, special collections, Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Mass.

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