Perhaps no other area of Detroit has changed more often and more drastically over the years than Campus Martius, the city center. Over the years, Old City Hall, the Majestic Building, the Pontchartrain Hotel, the Family Theatre, the Hammond Building and the old Detroit Opera House have all come and gone.
Only one landmark has outlived them all.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is among Detroit’s oldest pieces of public art and was one of the first monuments to honor Civil War veterans in the United States. It was announced by Gov. Austin Blair in 1865 that money would be collected to erect a tribute to Michigan’s soldiers killed in battle. Detroit, being the largest city, won the right to the monument.
The cornerstone for the monument was laid July 4, 1867, but not in Campus Martius, where the monument stands today: The original plan was to put it in the eastern half of Grand Circus Park. The previous year, the City Council granted permission to the Soldiers Monument Association to build the monument in either Campus Martius or East Grand Circus Park. After much debate, the latter was picked. Before the end of 1867, the argument over the site was renewed, leading the council to vote again, this time opting to relocate it in the center of Woodward Avenue between the halves of Grand Circus Park -- also to much dismay. Finally, a special committee of the council resolved in September 1871 that the best place for the monument was the open square in front of City Hall.
The bronze and granite sculpture was formally unveiled on April 9, 1872, though some of its statues were not added until July 18, 1881. Among the military commanders of Civil War fame attending the ceremony were Gens. George Armstrong Custer, Ambrose Burnside, Philip Sheridan, Thomas J. Wood and John Cook. The estimates were that 25,000 visitors turned out for the event, and each of the state's main cities was represented by a marching delegation. Detroit's hotels could not accommodate the crowd and some people had to sleep on the floors of the halls and parlors of taverns.
The Classical Revival monument stands more than 60 feet tall and cost more than $75,000 ($1.3 million today) to build. It was sculpted by Randolph Rogers, an Ann Arbor native who studied at the Academy of St. Mark in Florence, Italy, under Lorenzo Bartolini. Rogers won the commission after a public competition in 1867. He also is known for the bronze doors for the U.S. Capitol’s main entrance and created monuments like the Sailors and Soldiers in other cities. For this commission, Rogers modeled the sculptures in Rome and had the bronze cast in Munich, Germany.
Its body is made of Rhode Island granite; its figures are cast of bronze and rest on octagonal tiers. The bottom has four screeching eagles with outstretched wings, symbolizing America and freedom. Above that are four 900-pound statues that represent the four U.S. branches of the military: infantry, artillery, cavalry and the Marines. Behind them are bronze medallions of Civil War union leaders President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. U.S. Grant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Adm. David Farragut. The next tier has four allegorical figures representing Victory, Union, History and Emancipation.
Topping off the monument is a 3,800-pound personification of a victorious Michigan as an Indian queen in a winged helmet, brandishing a sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. She depicts Michigan as being strong, proud and brave. The personification of Michigan is similar, though more aggressive, than the one on the Russell A. Alger Memorial Fountain in Grand Circus Park.
Below the Indian queen is an inscription that reads:
“Erected by the people of Michigan in honor of the martyrs who fell and the heroes who fought in defence of liberty and union.”
One of the figures on the monument is of a black woman, representing Emancipation. She crowns the soldiers and sailors with wreaths, representing gratitude for emancipation and is said to have been inspired by Sojourner Truth. But there is no recognition of this in the account of the unveiling of the monument, nor in Lorado Taft's comment on the monument in his history of American sculpture.
The structure was added to the state register of historic sites Feb. 17, 1965. It joined the National Register of Historic Places on May 31, 1984.
After more than 100 years in the Motor City of being subjected to car exhaust and industrial factories, the monument was in need of a little spit and polish. The bronze statues were green and streaked. The granite base had cracked. In January 1986, cranes lifted nine statues from the monument and carted them off for restoration by art conservationist George Gikas. Calculus Construction Co. of Farmington Hills repaired the crumbling base. The whole restoration cost $100,000 (about $187,000 today) and was wrapped up that July, when a re-dedication ceremony was held.
The monument almost found itself headed to Grand Rapids. Under a plan discussed before the city's Common Council in 1938, Gratiot Avenue would have been widened between Brush and Randolph Streets. But that would have required moving the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and, as state property, would have required it be moved to Grand Rapids, as was stipulated when it was erected. It stayed put.
That is, until 2003, when the monument was moved 125 feet south of its original home as part of the Campus Martius reconstruction. The monument also was perched on a granite base equipped with fountains that raised it another 5 feet. It was rededicated in 2005 after the new Campus Martius was completed in a ceremony featuring Civil War re-enactors and members of the Grand Army of the Republic. A time capsule that was in the monument was opened, and the list of the state’s war dead was updated to include those killed through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.