Public Art at Williams

Public Art at Williams

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    The Soldiers Monument
    Anonymous
    American, 19th century
    Civil War memorial, re-sited after 1926
    bronze
    Photo by Megan Cross

    In 1864, well before the end of the Civil War, the Trustees of Williams College raised funds to commission renowned innovator James Batterson to erect a suitable monument in honor of Williams’ fallen soldiers. The resulting monument was one of the first of its kind and is, even today, one of the most prominent sculptural works on the Williams campus. Though photographs of the memorial grace the College’s calendars, how many Williams students know the monument’s true story? How many people stop to recognize all that the work of art represents? The Civil War monument we see today, that some mistakenly identify as a sculpture of Ephraim Williams, is radically different from the one dedicated more than a century ago.

    A CIVIL WAR MONUMENT FOR WILLIAMS

    By 1863 America was well in the grips of war when Joseph White ’36 recommended to the Trustees of Williams College that “the names of those fallen in battle be…inscribed on a suitable monument provided for, and erected on, the campus.”[1] In August of 1864, still well before the end of the Civil War, Trustees approved the design of the base of a monument on which Williams soldiers who had died in battle could be commemorated by name.  By the next year, the Trustees moved that funds could be collected and that a bronze statue in the form of a Union soldier was needed to crown the sandstone base. Altogether, alumni raised the astonishing sum of $10,000 for the commissioning of the work.

    THE DESIGNER

    James Goodwin Batterson (1823-1901) of Hartford, Connecticut was enlisted to design and fabricate the Williams memorial. Batterson was a quintessential nineteenth century dilettante who knew several languages and was also a geologist, engineer, financier, inventor, builder, and architect. He owned New England Granite Works, likely the source of his monument-building acumen. At just about the same time he was envisioning a format for Williams College’s memorial, Batterson founded Travelers Insurance, the first casualty insurance company in the United States. On top of his building, designing, and entrepreneurship, Batterson made time to travel to Egypt and subsequently became a recognized authority of Egyptology. His reputation as a skilled craftsman in stone was bolstered by his engineering work in Egypt with renowned British engineer Isambard Brunel. Batterson also had great appreciation for the artistic treasures of Europe, even employing Italian marble sculptors to aid him in his creations.

    The powers that be at Williams likely hired Batterson based on his successful design and fabrication for New York City in 1857 of a monument to General William J. Worth, hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. After the success of the Williams statue, Batterson was responsible for constructing many of America’s most prominent cemeteries and Civil War memorials, including the monuments at the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. He erected Central Park’s statue of Alexander Hamilton, the Thayer Monument at West Point, and the Halleck Monument in San Francisco. Batterson also accepted the commission from Abraham Lincoln to be the building contractor for the Library of Congress.

    Despite never having graduated from college himself, in 1868, when the Williams monument was dedicated, the Trustees awarded him an honorary masters degree.

    Surely Batterson would have earned his reputation as one of the leading citizens of his time, either as politician, man of letters, visionary insurer, or pioneer of stone. Nevertheless, it is tempting to view the forward-thinking inspiration of the men of Williams to commission a monument, even before knowing when the war would end or what the outcome would be, as a launching point for Batterson’s great success as memorial builder.

    FROM DEDICATION, TO DESTRUCTION, TO REBIRTH

    On July 28, 1868, during commencement, Joseph White, Rev. Jeremiah Porter ‘25 and David Dudley Field ’25 dedicated the finished monument. Speaking before the assembled undergraduates, President Mark Hopkins, and members of the Society of Alumni, Field eloquently expressed,

    The statue … is a tribute and a memorial. It is the tribute of this generation to…heroic virtue. It is the memorial to future generations of a great war and a great peace…. This monument is the … insufficient tribute that we pay to…our brethren whose names are inscribed on this pedestal. There were thirty of them, of different ages, from the fair-haired youth not yet graduated, to the grey-headed man who looked back through many years to his leave-taking here. I wish I could give the story of each one’s life…but time would fail me to speak of all. …Their work is accomplished. They have no more responsibilities to bear; no more duties to perform. Whatever responsibilities and duties remain devolve upon us…. Such a war, and such a peace, deserve a memorial that shall last as long as yonder mountains look upon this valley. Let us hope that in the spot where we have placed it, it will stand through summer and winter, with the same placid face to the fierce storm and the sweet sunshine, witnessing to the generations…. And in all future time, as students gather here…may each say…’This is the monument of my countrymen who fell in the great civil war which sealed the unity of my country, and delivered it from slavery….’[2]

    In addition to the stirring rhetoric of Field, attendees of the 1868 festivities would have been treated to a great visual spectacle in the form of the memorial. Atop a grand, articulated, faceted sandstone base, replete with architectural ornament, stood the bronze sculpture of a Union soldier, his pose “easy and natural…the drapery and all the little accessories…carefully elaborated. His face, made sharp and expressive by a resolute mustache, is of the scholarly type, but quickened and animated by war and a deep and pervading principle.”[3] Facing south, and thus in the direction of the battle, the soldier served as a symbol for all the men of Williams who perished in the conflict. Though no measurements of the original base remain, it was a tour de force of stonework, easily more than twice the height of the bronze sculpture that crowned it. Adorned with heraldic shields and crossed muskets, its most prominent feature was the names of the fallen, inscribed on bronze plaques on its base.

    Sadly, Field’s inspirational benediction on the day of the dedication was to prove untrue. The monument fell into disrepair. The original sandstone base eventually became unstable and was broken up and thrown into the nearby Green River. A Mr. Cartwright copied the names from the tablets on the base for inclusion in the new memorial to fallen soldiers in Thompson Chapel. Perhaps the Williams Trustees were spurred to action by an article in the May 1925 Alumni Review that reported with consternation the effects of a campus construction boom upon the site of the sculpture:

    As upon a war-scarred region looks down the silent sentinel upon Chapel hill. Man, with his hill-leveling devices, has made it easy for an advancing horde to charge the hill and invade the hitherto well protected campus. Bare rocks, where once was verdure…suggest the desolation of war….[4] In 1926, in an attempt to rectify the disrepair, the Trustees voted to replace the statue as nearly as possible on its original site. Cram and Ferguson, the architects of most of the buildings erected on the Williams campus in the 1920s, and the probable perpetrators of the desolation of the site, were asked in 1928, while constructing Lehman Hall, to design a new base.  The Cram and Ferguson pedestal, a poor cousin of the original, is the one we are accustomed to seeing today.

    The commissioning of the sculpture, the story of the cutting-edge artist, the forward-thinking donors, and the innovativeness of the work have gone basically unrecognized. That the form of the monument was substantively altered is not mentioned. Now we have a better notion of the full story and the true history of one of the most prominent public art works on campus.

    By Margaret Adler ’99, MA’11

    [1] Philip H Warren, The Purple Connection: A Celebration and an Investigation of the Society of Alumni of Williams College… and Related Phenomena, 1st ed. (Williamstown, Mass: Williams College, 1987), 12.

    [2] David Dudley Field, Address on the Occasion of Unveiling the Monument to the Graduates & Undergraduates of Williams College Who Fell In the Civil War (Paris: L. Edmonds, 1873), 1-16.

    [3] Durfee, Williams Biographical Annals, 205.

    [4] “On Guard,” The Williams Alumni Review XVII, no. 7 (May 1925): 1.