For over a century now, the Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers Monument has been a part of Hamilton’s signature. More specifically, it’s the sculpture atop it, the Union Soldier we call Billy Yank, that gets all the attention.
In a day when some Civil War monuments are the center of controversy, ours remains a point of pride. The statue hasn’t been without controversy in its century, but it is currently part of the city’s official logo and the namesake of a popular new restaurant in town.
Billy Yank’s official sculptural name is “Victory: Jewel of the Soul,” and was made in Hamilton, designed by a Hamilton artist, and so is a fit symbol for both our industrial past and our current Renaissance, much of which can be attributed to the influence of the arts.
That it be home-grown wasn’t necessarily the plan going into it.
Drive to build the monument began in 1899. The committee behind it, which included Middletown native and former Ohio Governor James E. Campbell, who practiced law in Hamilton, put out a national call for entries and four artists responded from Boston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Hamilton.
The Hamilton artist, Rudolph Thiem, proposed a fourteen-foot bronze for $3,500, which would be in the neighborhood of $100,000 today. It was a competitive bid. Among the other bidders was Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson of Boston, the first woman member of the American Sculpture Society who created hundreds of Civil War monuments and statues in her career, including 73 statues at the Vicksburg National Military Park. She proposed an eight-foot statue for the same price.
Mostly, though, it was the atypical design that earned Thiem a unanimous vote by the committee, and he began casting the statue in May 1904. At the time, most Civil War monuments had a somber tone, but Thiem’s design showed a soldier in an exuberant pose, his mouth open in a holler and waving his hat in the air.
When it was finished, “Victory: Jewel of the Soul” was 16 feet high including the pedestal and hat held over its head, was eight feet around the waist, and had nine-inch fingers and twenty-six inch feet. The bronze cast weighed 3,500 pounds.
Early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, 1904, two years to the date of the laying of the cornerstone of the monument, the tedious process of pulling the statue up the side of the Monument began by means of a hand-cranked windlass.
“A crowd of several hundred people stood about the monument during the afternoon and watched the work,” the Hamilton Sun reported. “No services of any kind marked the raising of the statue except the tribute of the silent crowd which gazed upon it while in mid-air.
“The men worked until about five o’clock in the evening and only had the statue about two thirds of the way up. It was placed on a cornice and will remain there until a larger derrick is placed in position to take the statue to its proper place. This may take some days.”
Finally, on December 1, “Amid the clanging of fire bells the statue of a soldier was placed on the Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers Monument… The ringing of the fire bells caused much excitement. Many people thought the town was afire… During the placing of the statue William Elzer fired three shots from a cannon belonging to the Uneeda Outing Club. Besides this and the ringing of the fire bells there were no other ceremonies.”
It’s not clear just who started calling the statue Billy Yank, but that was a common term to refer to Union Soldiers, as opposed to Johnny Reb. In various incarnations, the two were the subject of novels, comic strips, stage plays, and more. “William” was a popular name in the early 1840s, when most of the soldiers who fought in the war were born. Some historians credit this to the popularity of Ohio-born president William Henry Harrison.
Thiem was born in Berlin on October 22, 1857, where he began his art studies, and came to Hamilton in 1886 by way of New Orleans. He was brought here by Lazard Kahn of the Estate Stove Company to work as a designer in his factory. One of Thiem’s descendants maintains an excellent website that offers a ton of information about him.
In a letter to local historian and newspaper columnist Stella Weiler Taylor in 1937, Thiem’s daughter Mabel gave her memories of the work on the statue:
“The figure is that of a victorious soldier, exuberating joy for a victory won. His whole being manifests his emotions and he is truly a symbol of Victory. One might soliloquize on various things as he gazes on this 17-foot bronze giant, but my thoughts always turn to the artist, my father, the late Rudolph Thiem, who created this work of art.
“When work was begun on the Soldier, the workshop was located on what was once South A Street. His shop was the center of interest particularly for the boys, who would gather in large interested groups to watch the massive figure take definite form. The boys were not disorderly, but a bit distracting to the sculptor and father was forced to ask them to stay away until the soldier was completed, promising them the privilege of a close-up view then.
“Another interesting detail is the manner in which the face was modeled. High up on the scaffold my father held a mirror so placed that he could observe his own mouth and facial expression when the lips were open to voice joy. Thus the face was modeled and I do believe he captured something of his own likeness in the Soldier’s face.
“Although my sister Alma, brother Rudolph, and I were in our early years during the creation of this magnificent figure, I recall vividly how we marveled at its great size, three times that of a normal man, and we beamed with pride at the accomplishment of our father.”
“Their friendship was so entirely won that when the flood-waters surrounded the building some weeks later and all possible agencies were offering their services, these same boys went to the great labor of building a walk of stones and planks so that my father might have access to his shop.”
Sadly, Thiem’s shop was lost during the 1913 flood, but the Monument stood strong and the eyes of Thiem’s creation, as exuberant as ever, remain fixed on his adopted city.