|photo by Alice Lum|
Twenty-three years after the last shot was fired in the American Revolutionary War, tension between Britain and the newly formed United States was still strong. When the British sailed into New York Bay in 1806 claiming the right to seize and search all American vessels, New Yorkers were outraged. The Seventh Regiment of New York was organized as a state defense force in response.
The regiment would see action during the War of 1812; but it was the Astor Place Riots of 1849 that changed the complexion of the unit. When 20,000 working class demonstrators mobbed the exclusive residential neighborhood around the Astor Place Opera House, the Seventh Regiment responded. The grateful upper class would not forget their champions. The sons of Manhattan’s millionaires enlisted in force over the decades, resulting in the group’s popular names “The Silk Stocking Regiment” and “The Dandy Seventh.”
When President Abraham Lincoln called for additional troops on April 15, 1861 the Seventh Regiment responded. Four days later the men left their Tompkins Market armory wearing grey uniforms and a sky-blue overcoat. The Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Military Statistics of the State of New York later recalled “New Yorkers cheered and applauded as the Silk Stocking Regiment marched through the city…Thousands upon thousands lined the sidewalks.
“The regiment marched not as on festival days—not as on the reception of the Prince of Wales—but nobly and sternly, as men who were going to the war…And so along Broadway and through Cortland street, under its almost countless flags, the gallant Seventh regiment left the city.”
Although the lower classes complained violently that the wealthiest New Yorkers had bought their sons’ exemption from military conscription; the Civil War historian Frederick Phisterer, in 1911, said that did not apply to the Seventh. “The best blood and most honored names in New York City were prominent in its ranks…Veterans now hail it as the highest type of the citizen soldiers who went to the front.”
|The men of the 7th Regiment pose in Washington DC in April 1861--The Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911 (copyright expired)|
Although the unit was originally mustered into service for three months; it would repeatedly return the South throughout the next two years. During its service the regiment would supply 606 officers to the Union army and according to Phisterer the Seventh lost 185 men in combat—15 officers and 170 enlisted men “of whom 7 enlisted men died in the hands of the enemy.”
New Yorkers welcomed their favorite sons home and a mere year after the end of the war the Monumental Association was organized to erect a statue in memory of those who had given their lives. But things did not go smoothly.
Not only was the Association’s planned memorial, in the opinion of the Regiment, too garish; but after a few years the project seemed to have ground to a halt. “In their opinion, the design for the base was extravagant in its proportions, and in the expenditure required; the site in the Park which had been accepted was too distant from the city, and was otherwise objectionable; and, finally, the Regiment, having contributed nearly all the money raised for this purpose, was dissatisfied that operations had been entirely suspended, and that there was no prospect of the completion of the work,” according to Colonel Emmons Clark in 1889.
The Regiment launched a coup in 1872 to take over the Association by nudging out members who “had long since ceased to take any active part in the matter, and to fill their places with members who fully represented their views and interests. This was accordingly done, and at its quarterly meeting in October the Monumental Association was captured, and a new executive committee, controlled by active and prominent officers of the Regiment, was appointed, with full power as to site, base, funds, etc.” remembered Clark.
The first plan of action was to redesign the “extravagant” base. Clark wrote “a new design for the base by Mr. [Richard Morris] Hunt, the architect, was approved; and, within six months from the first meeting of the committee, contracts were signed for the construction of the base and the completion of the entire work.”
Esteemed sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward would be responsible for the bronze statue upon Hunt’s granite base. Victorians were accustomed to the bronze and marble likenesses of statesmen and military heroes in grand, formal poses. But Ward headed in the opposite direction. He chose to depict the common soldier in all his humanness.
|photo by Alice Lum|
The figure was not of an officer, but a lone sentry. The Evening World said “It is in the form of a soldier boy in full regimentals on picket duty.” He vigilantly gazes off while leaning on his rifle. The relaxed pose would influence countless Civil War monuments and town squares throughout the country would erect their own versions of the standing soldier and rifle.
On June 22, 1874 the statue, entitled “The Citizen Soldier,” was ready for its unveiling. The Civil War veterans assembled at the armory at 3:00 and the current members of the Seventh Regiment arrived there an hour later. The two groups paraded to Central Park on separate routes, meeting up at Eighth Avenue and 69th Street to enter the Park. “During the march of the regiment the drives upon its route are to be kept clear of carriages and pedestrians,” The New York Times warned readers that morning.
Although the ceremony would be carried out with the expected pomp of a Victorian event—the Seventh Regiment Band played and two stands were erected for “the accommodation of the distinguished military and civic guests,” it was a relatively understated ceremony. Harper’s Weekly called it “simple and impressive.” Nevertheless the Herald would say the following day “There was never seen at the Central Park at any time since it has become one of our great public resorts, such an immense crowd as was gathered there yesterday afternoon to witness the unveiling of the memorial statue of the Seventh Regiment.”
|Harper's Weekly depicted the throngs attending the unveiling. July 11, 1874 (copyright expired)|
There were 100 invitations to the press and “Through the courtesy of the Park Commission, 300 reserved seats were provided expressly for ladies,” noted The New York Times. The sculptor himself unveiled the statue
The following morning the Herald wrote “The sight was indeed one that must have left an impression of utter wonderment upon everybody who beheld it. In fact, the Park never before had been witness of anything at once so novel—the dazzle of the muskets and the golden uniforms blending with the varied colors of the dresses and attires of the assembled thousands of civilians, rendering the scene positively enchanting.”
New Yorkers were understandably offended and outraged when eight years later thieves pried the valuable bronze medallions off the base of the statue. The men were caught and tried separately. One of them, Louis Sigmund, was convicted on August 18, 1882 and sentenced to six months in the penitentiary.
|A 19th century stereopticon view captures a workman pausing before the memorial.|
Defacing of a less serious nature came the following year. On June 7, 1883 the New-York Tribune reported “The 7th Regiment Memorial Statue in Central Park has been made a nesting place by a pair of sparrows. Under the bronze cape of the soldier the birds were weaving long blades of dry grass yesterday, and the effect was both ornamental and comical.”
The monument would be the yearly pilgrimage site of the Seventh Regiment veterans every Memorial Day. On May 31 1895 The Sun described that year’s ceremony, saying the Veteran Corps “commemorated the memory of their comrades who fell in the civil war with appropriate exercises…The monument was almost hidden from sight by wreaths and flowers, as was the ground at its foot.”
Time passes, veterans die, and memories fade. By 1923 when the statue was rededicated it was more of a Victorian curiosity than a revered memorial. Then in 1927 the dramatic and emotional World War I monument to the Seventh Regiment, now designated the 107th Infantry, was dedicated. John Quincy Adams Ward’s moving 19th century tribute to the citizen soldier became a footnote.
|130 years after the first birds nested in the statue, a new family finds a home. photo by Alice Lum|
But not everyone overlooks the statue. As they did in 1883, birds happily construct their nests today under the bronze cape of the Civil War sentry.