Built in fits and starts, of limestone and marble, footed on quicksand and crowned with bronze, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands today in Lake View Cemetery to remind us of hundreds of young men who marched south to do battle so that the United States might remain united. But as the war was a struggle, so too was finding a proper way to remember it.
Twenty years after the end of the War of Rebellion, the Town of Skaneateles still had no monument to its heroes. Such memorials were being raised all over the north, the effort usually led by the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), an organization of Civil War veterans established in 1866. Each town’s G.A.R. post was named after a Civil War hero, and given a number. The Skaneateles chapter was chartered in 1880, Ben H. Porter Post 164, and led the local efforts to honor those who served, first raising funds in February of 1886.
But just as the honorees of the monument had endured shot and shell, so its promoters would have to endure politics, poverty and letters to the editor.
The first wrinkle came in June 1886 when a rival association, “The Soldiers’ Monument Association of Skaneateles,” began collecting for a monument to honor veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War, plus, in a sweeping catch-all, any soldier in the town or adjoining towns who made a contribution to the fund. By October, that association had collected $394. In December of 1887, however, under-financed and under-appreciated, they bowed out. The following month, the G.A.R. noted that $936.10 had been raised and work would begin.
In December of 1888, a site was staked out in Lake View Cemetery. Stone arrived in January of 1889. In the spring, local mason William Cottle began laying the foundation.
As befits a war memorial, sniping began at once. One critic pointed out that the monument was being built on quicksand. Cottle replied that six feet of foundation stone would be laid on four thicknesses of plank, and would hold up quite well. And to his reply he added this verse:
“Rock, sand and timberland
Are what I like to see.
But from big guns and fools’ tongues
Good Lord, deliver me.”
Cottle finished the foundation in August of 1889 and began work on the first level. At summer’s end, the monument stood 16 feet high but alas the treasury had dwindled to nothing. No work was done in 1890. In 1891, the coffers held one dollar and eleven cents. In early 1893, the unfinished monument was scorned as an “unsightly pile of stone.”
But in September of that year, Cottle returned to work on the second story. The expenses were “to be borne by a liberal citizen of the Village” who guaranteed the monument’s completion. That citizen was artist, banker and civic leader John D. Barrow, the designer of the monument, of whom it was said, “he did not have a warlike spirit, but he was a friend of the soldier himself.”
Cottle completed the work using 240 tons of limestone in all, and the monument stood 60 feet high. On its front, an inscription read, “In Memory of the Soldiers and Sailors of Skaneateles.” To crown the spire, a statue was suggested, and more money was sought. By January of 1894, $1048.20 had been raised and a $950 bronze statue was ordered, also to be designed by Barrow.
The Barrow sculpture atop the monument was cast in Chicopee, Massachusetts, by Melzar Hunt Mosman (1846-1926). The Ames Sword and Bronze Company of Chicopee, where his father, Silas Mosman, Jr., worked, had gone from casting cannon during the Civil War to casting bronze figures for Civil War monuments. Melzar returned to the shop after his Civil War duty; in 1867 he went to Europe where he worked and studied in a Paris foundry; in 1874, he worked in Rome for a year. In 1884, he established his own independent shop. In addition to the Skaneateles monument, Mosman also cast the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Bridgeport, Connecticut; an 8-ton equestrian statue of General Ulysses S. Grant for Lincoln Park, Chicago; the bronze doors of the U.S. House of Representatives; the firemen’s monument at New Haven, Connecticut; and the Tenth Massachusetts Regiment monument at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
By October of 1894, Barrow’s statue of a Union soldier had been delivered by Mosman and installed, but it rocked on windy days. Word was sent to its makers “to come and remedy the difficulty.” Wind was not the only culprit, as gusts of irate letters buffeted the monument as well. Wrote one curmudgeon, “I think the statue is too far away. We haven’t all got spy glasses.”
In June of 1895, the names of 204 of the Town’s enlistees were carved on slabs of marble and mounted inside the monument, on the east wall. On the west wall, three more panels carry the names of 147 more soldiers. There is a story in every name: Navy Lt. Benjamin Porter, 20, killed leading a charge across the beach at the storming of Fort Fisher, North Carolina. His brother, Private Stanley Porter, 20, mortally wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, his body never found. Private Albert De Cost Burnett, 16, the Village’s youngest recruit, dying of disease at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. Private Wadsworth B. Francis, 51, killed at the storming of the fortress at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Sgt. James Dunn and Private Michael Dunn, dying at Andersonville Prison, Georgia. In all, 60 men belonging to the Town of Skaneateles gave their lives in the conflict.
As the summer of 1895 came to a close, the statue was steadied with two bolts securing a strap over one of the figure’s shoes. The completed Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated on September 4, 1895. The effort had taken almost 10 years and $10,000, but a throng of 8,000 crowded the Village for the dedication, and was well pleased.
Today, atop the monument, the silent soldier still speaks about his designer, the “unwarlike” John Barrow. Take a look some day and see what the soldier is not doing. He is not aiming or firing his weapon, not charging into eternity, or standing guard, or dying, unlike so many memorial figures of the era. This is not a statue about war. The soldier’s rifle stands at his side, steadied casually by his right hand, as if it were a walking stick. The rifle’s bayonet is tucked in his belt. The soldier’s left hand is empty and hangs relaxed at his side. His forward foot is almost off the pediment, as if he is preparing to move on. His jaw is firm, his eyes are steady, and he looks straight ahead, calmly, resolutely. The battle is over. The war is done. Peace beckons on the horizon.
This photograph of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was taken after its completion in 1895 but before the addition of two cannons in 1897. The photo itself comes from Cottle family artifacts found in an attic in Maine, and may well be William Cottle’s own keepsake of his work.
A note: The last surviving member of Ben H. Porter Post, No. 164, G.A.R., was John Thompson. Enlisting as a private in February of 1865 at Auburn, he was present when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Thompson died at the age of 92 on March 9, 1939.