- Historic Sites
The Northern Front
Boston is so bright a beacon of Revolutionary history that it is easy to forget the city played an equally significant role in another civil war. Dara Horn, a Harvard junior, seeks out the moral engine of the Union cause.
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
Most cemeteries force a certain silence on their visitors, but Mount Auburn is more like a park than a traditional cemetery. In fact the place is so parklike that visitors have to be reminded that “bicycling, jogging, picnicking, skating and pets are prohibited since the Cemetery is still an active place of burial and visitation.” Instead of hinting to those who walk through it that they too will someday die, the cemetery’s endless garden of monuments brags about those who are already dead. Anyone searching here for signs and symbols of the Civil War, or of just about any other event in the past century and a half, will have no trouble finding the right address (this is a cemetery with named streets) of a particular grave by consulting one of the cemetery’s many maps. Here rest the great families of nineteenth-century Boston, abolitionists and artists, crusaders and tycoons, poets and prophets, all in large family plots that would make any Cabot or Lowell feel right at home. Longfellow is buried here, as are Winslow Homer, Felix Frankfurter, Buckminster Fuller, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to name only a few in this American pantheon. But for those in search of the residue of the Civil War, there are a few monuments especially worth seeing. The sphinx-shaped Memorial to the Preservation of the Union, with its wonderfully succinct slogan “American Union Preserved-African Slavery Destroyed,” stands across from the large brownstone-and-marble monument to Robert Gould Shaw’s grandfather, with its bronze plaque erected in honor of Colonel Shaw. The colonel’s real grave is a ditch somewhere in South Carolina, but here he lies symbolically buried in his family’s plot. Someone must have felt the way I felt about him, because there was a fresh flower resting beside the tombstone. Julia Ward Howe is also buried here, beneath a stone so plain and unassuming that you might easily miss it as you pass through Mount Auburn’s sculpture garden oi sepulchers. Set two rows back from the closest path, the grave of the woman whose eightieth-birthday tribute labeled her “Poet, Priestess, and Prophet” is inscribed with nothing but her name, her father’s name, her husband’s name, and the boundary years of her long life of activism, 1819-1910 But in Boston people remember her and the spiritual force that she saw within the great conflict. When I once visited the cemetery in the middle of winter, there were fresh flowers on her grave.
After passing by the graves of more reformers than ] could remember the names of, I found myself climbing up toward the cemetery’s highest point, marked by obelisks at the very top. From there I was able to look out and see the whole city, from my own university to the nine others be yond it, in a town where one out of every five people is i college student—just the sort of person to live in a place with a history of rallying to a cause.
There is far less to inspire us now. No obvious moral imperative looms on the national horizon, and religious passion, no longer associated with intellectual pursuit, now stands for ideas that don’t match the city’s liberal politics. Boston is no longer so much a city of ideas and activists as it is a city of students and of books. But as Higginson told Harvard students a century ago, our trial comes in the days of peace, and we are quite as much needed ; the front as they were in “’61.” The m spirit of Boston comes not from what its cit zens said about slavery or anything else bi from the willingness of those citizens to say what they meant and mean what they said. You don’t need a Civil War to do that.
As I looked down at the city, I notice that my favorite moment in the day had a rived, the moment when the sun stops shii ing and starts glowing instead, when Hn and edges are most pronounced and shadov yawn to their greatest lengths. It’s not qui the moment of transition from day to nigh but rather the moment just before that, tl moment of anticipation of evening, whc everything around you in both space ar time—the trees, the shadows, where you’ve been, where you’re going—becomes increc bly clear. The city has grown quiet in th strange omitted gap in time between day ar night, but on these peaceful evenings, if yc listen carefully, you can hear the minglt footsteps of the free and the freed, the livii and the dead. On the other side of the river, a few miles and more than a century away, Robert Gould Shaw sits trapped on his bronze horse, surveying the future while wondering if anyone will discover that elusive residue of time that the nation, shaken by words’ mighty power, once left behind. In the direction of Shaw’s gaze, the sun is beginning to set behind the skyscrapers.