“Thank God for Michigan”
Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln upon the arrival of the first responders to the President’s call for volunteers. Michigan’s involvement in the Civil War began after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The Union cause was well supported throughout the state and it is because of this devotion to patriotism that the 1st Michigan Infantry Regiment was formed. In fact, Michigan was the first state to respond to the President’s call. In Detroit, many leaders in the community including Good Templers, Free Masons, and others, had a strong support for the war effort. However, they also knew that of the many brave Michiganders heading off to war, only few would return. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is one of the first monuments erected to honor veterans of the Civil War and is one of the oldest pieces of public art in the city of Detroit. The monument is located in Campus Martius, a downtown park in Detroit. Campus Martius is located in the heart of Detroit, across from the Compuware Headquarters at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Michigan Avenue. The Classical Revival statue stands over 60 feet tall, containing figures and medallions that represent key individuals and values of the Union during the Civil War.
Michigan’s First Monuments
On July 4, 1866, a little over a year after the end of the Civil War, battle flags from the Civil War were presented to the state of Michigan. Hundreds of veterans of the war gathered in Detroit to march behind their battle flags one last time before presenting them to the state. Among these men was General Orlando B. Willcox, the commander of the first regiment to leave the state at the start of the war. The flags were then presented to Governor Henry H. Crapo at the historic Campus Martius, the eventual site of the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
On that same day, in Franklin Township of Lenawee County, township residents gathered together to dedicate a new sandstone shaft standing thirty-three feet tall as a monument to the men who served in the war from Franklin. It had a flag wrapped around a staff and the names of the men who died inscribed on it. This monument was funded by donations from the community and totaled at $1,500. The monument contains the names of 33 men who lost their lives in the Civil War and the plaque reads:
Union and liberty, one and inseparable, now and forever. Erected July 4, 1866, by the citizens of Franklin as a memorial of the brave and patriotic men who represented them in battle, and gave their lives m defense of the unity of our common country. Preserve the union of the states, cemented by our prayers, our tears, and our blood.
Donations accepted to help build the monument could be as little as 10 cents, which, at the time, was much more. Many more monuments soon followed around the state.
Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument Association
On June 20, 1861, many years before the monument at Franklin, and even before the first major battles of the Civil War, a group of citizens decided that a monument should be erected in memory of those who died defending the Union. This committee was headed by Governor Austin Blair. As the troops gathered for first Battle of Bull Run, a committee was being formed by Judge Benjamin Witherall. The committee was then established, but no work was actually done until 1865, at the end of the war. This committee, comprised one hundred and six directors with other officers appointed as well. These officers included a president, C. C. Trowbridge; a vice president, John Owen; a treasurer, William A. Butler; and secretaries as well. At this point, the project was reactivated with the establishment of the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument Association. Governor Blair made the announcement in 1865 that money would be raised to erect a monument to honor the Union soldiers. On August 31, 1865, an inaugural meeting was held at Young Men’s Hall and the first donations totaled out at $9,500. The campaign of raising $50,000 was launched though financing the monument in the end exceeded $70,000. During the war, the community held bake sales and pledge drives to finance the project. Reverend George Taylor, a Methodist minister also gained contributions by providing donors with certificates of appreciation.
The Architect: Randolph Rogers
In 1867, The Detroit Free Press held a competition to decide who would design this new monument. The winner of that competition was Randolph Rogers. Rogers, originally a native of New York, moved to Michigan at the age of 8 years old. He had lived in Ann Arbor for about 10 years in the 1830s and 1840s. He returned to New York to work as a merchant before accumulating the funds to move to Italy. In Rome, Rogers studied under Lorenzo Bartolini and the Academy of St. Mark in Florence. His first piece, a statue of Ruth, was followed by Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii. The sculpture of Nydia has sold numerous amounts of replicas even to this day. In 1851, Rogers opened a studio in Rome and he resided there until his death in 1892. Rogers would eventually go on to design additional monuments including a Soldiers’ Monument at Gettysburg and Civil War monuments in Cincinnati and Massachusetts. In Manhattan, he designed a bronze sculpture of William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, that stands in Madison Square Park. He helped complete Thomas Crawford’s Virginia Washington Monument following Crawford’s death in 1857. The monument is located at the State Capitol in Richmond. He even designed the Columbus Doors, which are the major doors for the United States Capitol. After suffering a stroke in 1882, Rogers left all of his plaster casts and papers to the University of Michigan.
The original plan for the location of the monument was strongly debated between Grand Circus Park and Campus Martius. The original decision was to place the monument in the eastern portion of Grand Circus Park but after many arguments between association members, the debate was reopened. Many felt that the location in Grand Circus Park was too removed from the center of town and it would undermine the sense of honor that the monument was meant to depict and symbolize. The results placed the monument in the center of Woodward Avenue. This still caused a debate and the final decision was to have the monument located in front of City Hall. The monument was erected in 1871 and on April 9, 1872, the monument was dedicated in Detroit’s Campus Martius (Latin for Military Ground), a location where many events occurred during the war. As the “Point of Origin” of Detroit, Campus Martius is where the coordinates for the city of Detroit are laid out. This decision to make Campus Martius the point of origin came about after a city-wide fire in 1805. With the help of Canadian surveyors, the streets and squares of Detroit were laid out. Originally a military training area, Campus Martius eventually became a center for city life in Detroit. This made it an ideal location for the monument. Not only was it a central point in the city, but it also depicted Detroit’s military heritage. The cornerstones for the monument were laid in a Masonic ritual that included a consecration consisting of pouring corn, wine, and oil in the stone. The corn was recognized as an emblem of plenty while the wine represented refreshment and he oil represented eternal peace.
Among those in attendance at the unveiling of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument were General George Custer (a native of Monroe, Michigan), Philip Sheridan, Ambrose Burnside, John Cook, and Thomas J. Wood. The ceremony was said to have an extremely large attendance. It was estimated that there were more people in the city to witness the unveiling than had ever before been assembled in the city. Those who attended found that all the hotels were filled in the city, so they had to find accommodations elsewhere in nearby villages. Extra trains were loaded just to accommodate the massive influx of people for this ceremony. The city was decorated in red, white, and blue on every avenue, with Woodard and Jefferson avenues being the most extravagant. For the soldiers and sailors in attendance, the Baptist church prepared a bountiful dinner and did everything they could to meet the wants of their visitors. The dedication ceremonies featured prayers, the singing of “Michigan, My Michigan” by the Army’s 1st Regiment, and Masonic rites of acceptance. In a speech by Henry Camberlain, Grand Master of the Free Masons, Camberlain described the newly erected monument:
This monument, about to be unveiled and dedicated, has been erected by the free offering of a patriotic people. Unlike some monuments of former times, this is one of many erected in our country to commemorate the virtues and patriotism of the brave men, from all ranks and stations of life, a willing sacrifice for their country.
When four o’ clock arrived, the monument was revealed from its red, white, and blue sheath to an ecstatic crowd. The monument, which consists of a granite body originally stood at a height of fifty-six feet and consists of statues and medallions of bronze. Atop the sculpture stands a ten-foot statue of Michigania, a personification of Michigan represented by a Native American woman yielding a sword and shield.
Each of the first three levels of the statue contain four separate figures. The statue begins at the bottom with a group of American eagles that point the viewers attention to the next level which features many different bronze figures. These figures were modeled in Rome and the bronze was cast in Munich. The statue contains four allegorical figures that were added July 19, 1881. During this unveiling, there was a parade of the military followed by an address by Theodore Romeyn. These figures represent Victory, Union, History, and Emancipation. It has been further speculated that the emancipation statue was inspired by Sojourner Truth. Below the allegorical figures are four more figures representing the infantry, cavalry, artillery, and the navy. On this same level are medallion portraits of Lincoln, Grant, Farragut, and Sherman. The inscription on the statue reads: “Erected by the people of Michigan in honor of the martyrs who fell and the heroes who fought in defense of liberty union.”
An Act in 1883 approved $350 for repairs to the railing and foundation as well as $100 per year to help preserve the monument. All these funds were to be appropriated by the state. In 1984, the monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, the monument was moved 125 feet from its original location, during the Campus Martius reconstruction and was placed on a new granite base with fountains. This added another five feet to the sculpture. The monument was then rededicated in 2005 following the reconstruction. During this ceremony, a time capsule that was in the monument was opened and a list containing those who died in the war was updated to contain those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ceremony contained many participants, including a group of Civil War re-enactors as well as the Michigan National Guard, organizations descended from the Grand Army of the Republic, and representatives from the Detroit City Council.
- Freemason’s Monthly, Volume 3. Unveiling the Soldiers’ Monument, 1872: 465-471.
- Bentley Historical Library. Detroit Soldiers & Sailors Monument, 1890.
- Bentley Historical Library. Reading room of Old Library, with plaster cast of Rogers’ sculpture for Soldiers & Sailors Monument [Campus Martius, Detroit, MI], ca.
- May, George Smith. Michigan Civil War Monuments. Lansing: Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission, 1965.
- Vachon, Paul. HSM Chronicle. Detroit’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, 2012: 16-17.
- Dan Austin. “Historic Detroit.” Soldiers and Sailors Monument –. Historic Detroit, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
- Millard F. Rogers, Jr. Randolph Rogers: American Sculptor in Rome. University of Massachusetts Press 1971
For Further Reading
- SilasFarmer, History of Detroit and Wayne County and Early Michigan; a Chronological Cyclopedia of the past and Present. Detroit: Gale Research, 1969.