On this date in 1861, 27-year-old Asa Melvin, a Concord farmer, was just getting to know his new comrades in Company K of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. The oldest of four brothers, Asa Melvin had enlisted two days earlier -- just a week after Fort Sumter was shelled by South Carolina rebels. Descended from Revolutionary War combatants on both his maternal and paternal sides, he’d chosen to volunteer on April 19 -- a tip of his Union cap to the date of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Melvin saw action at Bull Run and in many subsequent battles, as he reenlisted in 1862 and again in 1863. By then two of his younger brothers, Samuel and John, were also wearing the uniform of “Mr. Lincoln’s Army.” None of the three young men would survive the war. The only Melvin who did was a fourth brother, who also answered his country’s call. James had just turned 13 when his oldest brother marched off to war on a mission to end slavery and preserve the Union. James was 17 when the fighting stopped.
The Civil War is often portrayed as a conflict that pitted brother against brother. Although true in some cases, it wasn’t usually the case. The Melvin brothers, for example, were proud Yankees, a flame that James Melvin kept burning well into the 20th century.
Yesterday I wrote about the Minutemen of 1775 and how they were immortalized in a statue by young Daniel Chester French, the artist who would later sculpt the wartime president in the Lincoln Memorial. As it happens, the youngest Melvin brother was a boyhood friend of the famous sculptor, and years later James asked Daniel French to create a monument to his brothers. That work is widely considered one of French’s masterpieces.
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The acute misery of losing more than one son in battle seared itself into the institutional memory of the U.S. military after the Civil War, and by the time of World War II it was standard policy to separate brothers by unit. This was especially true in the Navy, which didn’t want sets of siblings going down on the same ship. Alas, the rule was loosely enforced and on Nov. 13, 1942, five brothers in the same Iowa family, the sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, were among the 687 men who perished when the USS Juneau was sunk in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Such tragedies befell other families, in both World War II and the Civil War, and were the inspiration behind Steven Spielberg’s classic “Saving Private Ryan.”
Asa Melvin was the first of his brothers to join the U.S. Army, but not the first to die. John Melvin was 20 years old when he enlisted in same unit as his brother. Described by a comrade as “an exceedingly good soldier,” John was felled by disease on Oct. 13, 1863, in a military hospital with his brothers and a chaplain at his bedside.
Eight months later, Asa was cut down by Confederate fire during a Union charge in the opening days of the Siege of Petersburg. By that date, June 16, 1864, a third Melvin brother, Samuel, had been captured on another Virginia battlefield and sent to the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga. Being confined there was often a death sentence, as it was for Samuel Melvin, who passed away on Sept. 25, 1864.
The monument to these three brothers -- and, by extension, all of their fallen comrades-in-arms -- is a stunning piece of art. Daniel Chester French titled it “Mourning Victory,” and it features a female angel. In her left hand are the laurels of victory, which the Union soldiers won on the battlefield. But her right arm holds a shrouded American flag as she looks to the names of the three Melvin brothers etched in bronze below.
“The pose of the face is sublime as ‘Mourning Victory’ gazes down at three bronze memorial panels, each bearing a Civil War musket garlanded with a laurel victory wreath and the names and death circumstances of the three Melvin brothers,” wrote Civil War scholar James A. Percoco. “The eyes, closed and sad, are yet somehow sweet.”
Beneath the angel in this inscription:
I with uncovered head
Salute the sacred dead
Who went, and who return not.
It was dedicated in 1909 at a poignant ceremony attended by two dozen of the Melvins’ brothers-in-arms, men then in their 60s and 70s, some of whom traveled a thousand miles to pay their respects.
There is a lot of talk these days about reparations for slavery. Any idea should have a hearing, but to some American families, the discussion feels discordant: They paid, in full, a long time ago. As for the Melvin clan, it paid -- and then some. Asa Melvin, the father of these four young men, died three years before the Civil War began. His wife, Caroline Heald Melvin, died in February 1863 at age 52, mercifully in a way, as she didn’t have to bear the news that three of her sons had fallen.
This triple Gold Star mother rests eternally alongside her husband and two of her four boys in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. Ralph Waldo Emerson is also buried there, along with Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and other giants of New England letters. Emerson once described the setting this way: “In this quiet valley, as in the palm of Nature´s hand, we shall sleep well when we have finished our day.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.