Inside the USS Kearsage Monument
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Kearsage_Memorial_00HISTORY MATTERS

Back in 1999 the “Sailors and Soldiers” Civil War monument in Goodwin Park was literally collapsing into itself. I know because, like an idiot, I took a flashlight and crawled inside through a hole about the size of a microwave oven. Installed in 1888, the original metal armatures that held the heavy hollow structure upright were completely eaten away. (Continued below)

 

The base was bowed at the center, and the guts of the monument were a twisted mess of tar, cement, caulking compound, and rubber sealant. As our memory of the Civil War fades, apparently, so do our memorials.

SEE: Inside the Civil War Memorial

Outside the memorial the collection of life-sized metal statues had seen better days. A metal minuteman with his rifle tilted drunkenly to one side. Bits of a sailor's cap had eroded away, and Lady Liberty had cracks along her metal wrist like a fresh scar. When it rained water poured through the fissures in the surface of the monument, rotting the wooden timbers placed inside to buttress the imploding structure.

The monument at Goodwin Park has since been restored thanks to federal funds and private grants. But how did the monument end up on Islington Street in the first place?

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Monuments-R-Us

Kearsage_Memorial_SoldierAfter the bloody Civil War, memorials to the dead and wounded appeared by the hundreds across the nation. To capitalize on this trend, the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, CT streamlined their sales with new affordable products. Using a cheaper zinc alloy, promoted as "white bronze," the company offered prefabricated statues and monuments. The largest white bronze monument erected in New Hampshire, Portsmouth's “Sailors and Soldiers Monument” at Goodwin Park came right from the company catalog.

In fact, an exact sketch of our Civil War memorial was pictured on the company salesman’s business card. Statues of generic military figures like the “American soldier” were described in detail in the company’s 1882 advertising brochure.

Small town buyers could afford to purchase a single figure like those that still stand in South Berwick, York, Raymond, Plaistow and other nearby towns. The popular standing soldier statue alone, for example, cost only $450. For an additional $150, if the buyer could supply a photograph of a slain Civil War hero or loved one, the face and head could be recast in his likeness and attached to the prefabricated body. Larger cities with bigger budgets were encouraged to mix and match a variety of stock figures with plaques onto a central metal platform, which is what Portsmouth did.

 

The bigger the better

Politicians worry about their place in history and Mayor Marcellus Eldredge was no exception. By the late 1800s it was becoming an embarrassment that Portsmouth had no major memorial to its Civil War dead. Eldredge originally opted for the economy version of a single figure atop a pedestal, but he later expanded to a larger more costly monument.

Mayor Eldredge, the owner of a local brewery, promised the Portsmouth veterans’ group that, if they could raise a few thousand dollars by public conscription, he would personally pay for the other half of a new monument. Portsmouth met the challenge. The smallest recorded donation was a dime from a local schoolgirl. The largest was a $1,000 donation from Hon. Frank Jones, also a former city brewer and mayor.

The expanded version featured the figure of Lady Liberty (or "America" as she is sometimes called) atop a tall pedestal. There was also a sailor, a soldier at parade rest, stacked cannon balls, a parrot gun, crossed swords, the GAR badge, a list of all major Civil War battles, the city seal, the NH state badge, the US coat of arms, a relief bust of Lincoln and one of NH Governor Ichabod Goodwin. The finished statue originally stood 42-feet high.

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The Goodwin connection

Kearsage_Ichabod_GoodwinBut where to put the monument? When Mayor Eldredge could find no suitable piece of city property for a new park, he bought the land himself from the descendants of the late Gov. Ichabod Goodwin with the stipulation that the park remain open to the public for eternity. Goodwin Field, as it was known, was located across Islington Street from the family mansion. Most people get confused at this point in the story because the stately Goodwin Mansion no longer looks out over Goodwin Park. There's a one-story brick furniture antiques store there now. The governor’s grand home was moved in the mid-1960s to its current location at Strawbery Banke Museum on the south side of town.

In 1888 the location for the new park was ideal. Goodwin (he died in 1882) was renowned as New Hampshire's "Civil War Governor." Born in North Berwick, Maine in 1794, Ichabod Goodwin moved to Portsmouth at age 14 during the city’s hey-day as a seaport. Goodwin wisely became president of the local railroad company as the city’s shipping industry faded. By the Civil War the influential governor was able to privately raise $650,000 for President Abraham Lincoln's early war effort.

 

The triumphant dedication

The City gained a new memorial at no cost and a park to put it in. The ornate Soldiers and Sailors Memorial was dedicated on July 4, 1888. The local newspaper described the event in glowing detail.

“Never was seen in Portsmouth such a gathering of battle-scarred heroes,” the paper reported, “as composed the Grand Army division of the parade. Several one-armed men were conspicuous, at least one wooden-legged veteran marched over the whole route, while one noble fellow, apparently totally blind, marched bravely on, fingers interlocked with two comrades for guidance. Such sites were more than heroic -- they were sublime."

Marcellus Eldrege made his mark on history with what he believed to be a rock solid monument. The town turned out in full with an estimated 5,000 outsiders coming in by trains that ran hours late due to overcrowding. The visiting NH governor, with a pressing commitment in Amesbury, left before the action even started.

There were the usual military bands, parades and speeches. Crewman from both Kearsage and Alabama were in attendance. Things went swimmingly, except when the drapery covering the monument caught on one of the statues during the unveiling ceremony. A spectator had to climb up the monument to release it so the memorial could be revealed. Police reported few criminal incidents and an uncharacteristic lack of public drunkenness, which often left even very young boys passed out in the streets after local celebrations. The ideal day was marred only by the accidental death of one boy who came in from the Isles of Shoals for the festival and was accidentally killed during the fireworks display.

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Keeping memory alive

The miraculous new “white bronze,” however, turned out to be a poor material for monuments. The zinc alloy skin cracked, split, bowed, and could not support its own weight. The 15-foot central column and a pedestal section of the Portsmouth monument were removed in 1955 and the memorial shrank to its current height. In recent years  Goodwin Park received a landscaping and design make-over for $263,000, largely from a HUD block revitalization grant. The monument, originally priced at $5,000, was restored using public and private funds for $127,000, according to a city official.

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Similar monuments made during this era have been collapsing in towns across New England or repaired at great cost. Although nearly identical to many of its sisters, the Portsmouth’s version has a key customized feature. Three of the four sides display the names of critical battles at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.  The fourth side is emblazoned with the word KEARSAGE, and shows an image of the Kittery-built battleship USS Kearsage and the defeated Confederate cruiser Alabama.

The Civil War was a boom period for shipbuilding on the Piscataqua River. Besides the clash between the ironclads Merrimac and Monitor, no Civil War sea battle is more famous than the sinking of the commerce raider Alabama.

Built at Portsmouth Yard in Kittery, ME and launched in 1861, Kearsage was a strange combination of sailing ship and steamboat with a central smokestack. The battle took place off the coast of Europe where the Confederate ship had been stalking Yankee merchant vessels. The Kearsage captain politely allowed Alabama five days to make repairs in a French port before the battle began in July 1884. When they finally faced off, the Alabama was sunk and the Kearsage boasted no lives lost, though one crewman died of his wounds days later.

The one hour and ten-minute battle left Kearsage veterans with a lifetime of laurels. Some of the crew members organized to promote annual Kearsage remembrance ceremonies and marched in local military parades well into the World War I era. A reported 5,000 marchers filled the city streets for a huge three-day festival in 1900. Around here "Remember the Kearsage!" was a cry more stirring than "Alamo!" The full story of the ship, the men, and the battle are currently on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article appears exclusively online. His latest book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Camdee. The new book is available in local stores, on Amazon.com, and at the Discover Portsmouth Center.

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