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Local monument part of a Vermont tradition

More than 6,000 people thronged the town on this cool, bright day in May 1905, some having arrived by train from as far away as Burlington and Rutland. The occasion was a special celebration of Memorial Day, a holiday that had arisen spontaneously in the years immediately after the Civil War to honor soldiers from both the North and the South.
Forty years had passed since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and Middlebury was ready at last to unveil its own monument to that awful war. The tone of the event looked backward, a heartfelt tribute to a fading tragedy in the country’s history.
Concealed behind red, white, and blue bunting, the Middlebury monument was clearly massive and perhaps 30 feet tall. After the parade, six Civil War veterans drawn from the ever-declining numbers of veterans from that war, stepped forward and pulled cords that released the drapery.
The applause was overwhelming. Col. Silas Ilsley, a veteran of the war but a relative newcomer to town, was blessedly brief in his remarks about the memorial he had commissioned: “It gives me pleasure to present this monument to Middlebury in honor of her soldiers.” The crowd’s wildly clapping hands flittered in the air like birds heading home at twilight. 
Almost lost among the many Civil War commemorative events being hosted this year is the 150th anniversary of the passage by the Vermont Legislature of Act No. 4. According to this act, passed on Oct. 30, 1863, “any town may instruct its selectmen to erect a monument or monuments to the memory of citizens of such town, dying in the service of the country, during the present war, and may appropriate a sum of money sufficient to defray the expense of such erection.”
Like President Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg three weeks later, the Vermont act was intended to give heart to discouraged Northerners during some of the darkest days of the war. Lincoln pronounced the Gettysburg battlefield hallowed ground that would serve forever as a reminder of the nation’s values. The Vermont Legislature offered every town in the state a chance to have its own piece of hallowed ground developed at public expense.
And the towns responded both immediately and years later.
“There were two prime periods when towns erected monuments,” says Howard Coffin, Vermont’s leading Civil War historian and author of the forthcoming book “Something Abides: Discovering the Civil War in Today’s Vermont.” As Coffin explains, “The first came right after the war, when towns like Derby, Rochester and Peacham were reeling from heavy casualties. Then there was a slowdown, and then a boom came 20 to 30 years after the Civil War ended.”
The designs for the half dozen hand-carved stone monuments erected in the latter 1860s fall into three categories: obelisks, markers, and original sculpture. The two examples of original sculpture set a standard in the state that no later monument equaled in terms of originality and artistic achievement. One is Larkin Mead’s “America” for St. Johnsbury, a work of art in Italian marble by a Vermont artist who was recognized as one of the premier sculptors of his day. The other is in Swanton, a “Goddess of Liberty” carved in Rutland marble by a local man virtually unknown outside his community.
Then came the lull. Many Vermont soldiers who survived came home and stayed. Others came home and quickly left the state. But fully one sixth of the Vermonters who had gone off to fight the Civil War never did come home, victims of fatal wounds and disease. To honor them all, a state branch of the Grand Army of the Republic was established and began building up a head of steam as a veterans’ organization.
The GAR held meetings and hosted reunions, but according to Coffin, the organization didn’t clamor to erect more monuments.
“Even when their ranks started thinning, the veterans were not the ones pushing for more monuments,” says Coffin. “You might think they would have, but by and large they wanted to leave the war behind them. They wanted to look ahead.”
In that window between the first and second monument building booms, the world changed. Efficiencies and advances in technology promoted duplication over originality. The Civil War monuments began to look more and more alike. 
“These were mass reproduced. It was mix and match, part prefab and part customized,” says Glenn Andres, a professor of history of art and architecture at Middlebury College.
Andres, who has passed the Middlebury monument nearly every day for close to 40 years, says with a chuckle that the statue of the soldier with the rifle resting between his legs “appears on hundreds and hundreds of monuments around the country.”
In Vermont alone, that design, or one similar, appears on monuments in Middlebury, Chester, Hardwick, Hartland, Highgate, Lunenburg, Brandon, Brattleboro, Brandon, Chester, Chittenden, Middletown Springs, Milton, Poultney, South Royalton and Tunbridge, usually as a cast bronze model that could be replicated endlessly.
Jones Bros. Co., a Boston-based granite firm with quarries and one of the country’s largest manufacturing compounds in Barre, manufactured the Middlebury monument. It pioneered the use of pneumatic drilling in cutting and carving granite, making the work easier and faster. It streamlined production. The company’s remarkable growth typified what was happening in the granite industry in general. Barre granite became internationally renowned.
“There’s Barre granite somewhere on every Civil War battlefield in the country,” says Coffin.
New technology made it easier and safer to remove granite from quarries. Railroads made it easier to transport heavy blocks from the quarries to the carving sheds and ultimately to their destinations. The granite sheds in Barre shipped memorial art throughout the world.
Boasting of its experience in the art of war monuments, Jones Bros. launched a special campaign after World War I to sell still another generation of war monuments. The company called its designs of soldiers from every branch of the military “Eternal Sentinels,” a phrase that conjures up visions of the popular Civil War artilleryman with the rifle resting between his legs re-outfitted as a Doughboy.
Long after the spectacular pyrotechnics had ended and the last stragglers had left the Middlebury green on Memorial Day 1905, the monument answered another call.
The City Beautiful Movement, which grew out of the planning for the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, revolutionized urban planning and architectural design in the country at the turn of the 20th century. Its theories, which were then being applied in places such as Washington, D.C., encouraged civic beauty for its own sake and to foster social order.
Its proponents advocated such activities as the planting of trees in downtowns and the erection of inspiring outdoor sculpture to promote the civic good. Surely Middlebury’s Civil War monument, with all its allusions to service and honor, served that purpose, too.
Nancy Price Graff of Montpelier is a freelance writer and editor.

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