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The first burial within the Trinity Churchyard on Broadway was in 1698. By 1842 the grounds were filled and the sprawling Trinity Church Cemetery was established far uptown. Nine years later the city proposed to extend Pine Street, which terminated at Broadway, to the Hudson River. That would require taking a large slice from the northern hem of Trinity Churchyard.
It seems that the Trinity trustees turned to civic patriotism and sentiment to block what today would be called eminent domain. On June 8, 1852 a meeting was held at City Hall to consider the erection of a monument to Revolutionary War prisoners of war in Trinity Churchyard, directly in the path of the proposed improvement project. The church trustees noted, in part:
The remains of a large number of those heroic men who sacrificed their lives in achieving the independence of the United States, many of whom died while in captivity in the old Sugar House, are interred in Trinity churchyard in this city, and from the uniform attention and respect to the dead, which Trinity Church has observed, it is believed on suggestion it will cheerfully erect a suitable monument to their memory.
The "Sugar House" had been a large building owned by the Livingston family, appropriated by the British as a prison. More than half a century after the war, New Yorkers still remembered the horrors inflicted on the prisoners. One aged survivor, Jonathan Gillett, gave his account to the New York Herald. The newspaper recounted:
He spoke of many dying of starvation and disease during his imprisonment. Almost every day one, and sometimes five or six, were carried out for burial. The bodies were placed upon the ground, and sometimes frozen there before removed. These detachments of their living comrades were employed in carrying them to the Bowery, near the freshwater pump, for interment.
The mayor found the church's sudden interest in memorializing the soldiers more than suspicious. He appealed to Albany, saying, according to The Evening Post, that the erection of the monument "was undertaken for the avowed object of preventing Pine street from being carried through." The city was unsuccessful and the plans for the monument forged ahead.
Whether the soldiers were actually buried directly in the path of the proposed Pine Street project is uncertain, since their graves were not marked. Nevertheless, the site chosen for the monument could not have been more emblematic. The completed structure would stand like a sentinel behind the churchyard fence, directly across from Pine Street.
Trinity Church insisted that the location sat over the graves. The Evening Post reported on January 5, 1854, "It is said that a portion of the yard, where the most of those brave men lie, was below the present surface, some sixteen feet about, at, or on a line with, or opposite, Pine street." The article claimed that soldiers were buried upon soldiers. "In fact, in that part of the yard, for more than sixteen feet, the ground is composed of human remains, quite decomposed, and nearly all ground to dust."
Trinity Church paid for the monument in full. On August 5, 1853 the Semi-Weekly Tribune reported, "The Corporation of Trinity Church have appropriated $7,000 for the construction of the work, but this sum will not more than half complete it." Assuming that the journalist was correct, the total cost would be equivalent to $478,000 today.
The trustees commissioned English-born architect Frank Wills to design the memorial. He had immigrated to New York City in 1847 and soon became the official architect for the New York Ecclesiology Society. Wills was especially known for his Gothic Revival designs and had trained under architect John Hayward, a master in the style. Willis's imposing monument would blend perfectly with Richard Upjohn's Gothic Revival style Trinity Church.
On August 5, 1853, a few months after construction had begun, the Semi-Weekly Tribune reported, "It will be of brown stone, and its height will be 73 feet. The pedestal will be 16 feet square, and placed at the top of a series of steps 24 feet square at the bottom." The article said that--at least originally--Wills intended that statues of military figures would adorn the buttresses.
That detail was not the only scaled-back aspect of the monument. In 1872 John Francis Richmond described the Martyrs' Monument in his New York and Its Institutions, giving the final dimensions. "It is a chaste Gothic structure of brown stone, standing on a granite foundation, about forty-five feet high, appropriately inscribed, and crowned with the American eagle."
Variously called the Martyrs' Monument and the Soldiers' Monument, for years the memorial was decorated on patriotic and military holidays. On May 6, 1861, for instance, The Evening Post reported on Decoration Day observances. (Later named Memorial Day, the holiday would not become official until after the Civil War.) The article said, "The revolutionary monument in Trinity churchyard has been appropriately draped with white, red and blue, and four or five flags are to be raised."
Half a century after the monument was completed, historian A. J. Bloor weighed in on the argument as to its exact purpose. Writing in the New-York Tribune, he told readers of a proposal to extend Pine Street through Trinity Churchyard "shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War." He said "Frank Wills, an excellent architect of the so-called Gothic school, was commissioned to design a 'monument to the prison ship martyrs' with which to block the way.'" Bloor gave Willis a notable compliment, saying that the monument was "one of the not too many architectural gems of this city."
Nearly 170 years after its construction, the Martyrs' Monument no longer receives attention on Memorial Day or Veterans' Day, and few New Yorkers or tourists are aware of its role in the church-vs.-City Hall battle.
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