Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress
Workers rest atop the plinth in this photo dated Feb. 22, 1858. They would have used the internal staircase.
On Nov. 2, 1857, the brig Waiborg, brought over from Amsterdam by Capt. D.F. Lund, came through the Great Shiplock of the James River and Kanawha Canal and moored at the Richmond docks. The vessel carried an 18-ton bronze statue of George Washington upon a horse. The ship also brought news that New York City-born sculptor Thomas Crawford, who fashioned the work in his Rome studio, had died at age 47 of brain cancer, on Oct. 10.
A vast crowd watched the huge crate’s unloading from the ship. Men wanted to pull the ropes to haul the statue and wagon uphill to Capitol Square. Among those who sought to join this effort were those whose fathers and grandfathers served in Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. But the commissioners in charge felt trepidation about an organized mob dragging expensive artwork over Richmond’s rugged roads. They chose to rely on horsepower.
It was just one more delay.
After decades of frustrated efforts at fundraising for the project, on Feb. 22, 1849 (Washington’s birthday), with the fund finally grown to $100,000, members of the Virginia Historical Society persuaded the General Assembly that a Washington statue should be placed on Capitol Square. An official competition to submit plans, with a prize of $500, was announced that October.
While visiting New Jersey relatives, Crawford ran across an article about Richmond’s proposal. He’d designed a Washington memorial some 10 years earlier in his Rome workshop. The artist had for some time sought a federal contract to create a memorial in the District. He’d ultimately produce Freedom, the female allegorical figure that sits atop the national Capitol’s dome.
Crawford won against 40 plans from 12 states.
Years earlier, Richmond had sought to become Washington’s final resting place — as did the U.S. Capitol in Washington — but Washington left explicit instructions in his will that his remains should be kept at Mount Vernon. Nonetheless, the base of the Richmond statue is equipped with room for a coffin, and an elaborate interior spiral staircase features upended torches that symbolize an extinguished life.
On Feb. 22, 1850, the cornerstone was placed in the presence of Virginia natives President Zachary Taylor and former President John Tyler, scores of dignitaries and thousands of spectators.
During an Italian sojourn, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) had visited Crawford’s studio while he worked on the Richmond statue. Hawthorne thought the statue a “very foolish and illogical piece of work — Washington mounted on a very uneasy steed … [partially because architect Robert Mills’ plinth was too small] when a single step of the horse backward, forward or on either side, must precipitate him; and several of his contemporaries standing beneath him, not looking up to wonder at his predicament, but each intent on manifesting his own personality to the world around.”
Crawford depicted a youthful, action-hero Washington, rather than the serious statesman of Houdon’s stand-alone statue in the Virginia Capitol’s rotunda. Crawford designed places for six accompanying statues but left their identities to the commissioning committee. He completed four. Another U.S. expat artist, Randolph Rogers, finished them. The statue and figures were cast in bronze at the Royal Bavarian Foundry in Munich, Germany, directed by Ferdinand von Miller.
Capitol historian Mark Greenough explains that the committee’s choices followed an overlapping chronological and metaphorical pattern.
In fringed buckskin is Andrew Lewis, first a frontier soldier, who later, at the July 9, 1776, Battle of Gwynn’s Island, ran Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore out to sea. Patrick Henry sounded the call for “liberty or death”; George Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which morphed into the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Of the remainder, Greenough adds, “Jefferson does for the country what Mason did for Virginia — cribs from [Mason] through an acceptable, understandable and permissible borrowing of ideas. Thomas Nelson Jr. puts his money where his mouth is, as military and civil leader. He’s commanding general of the militia for the Yorktown finale; and we secure the blessings of liberty with the rule of law with [Supreme Court Justice] John Marshall.” The likeness of Marshall, also Washington’s first biographer, is the best of the group.
On Nov. 24, 1857, a team of horses attempted to haul the statue of Washington, but their physical limit was reached at the intersection of 17th and Main streets. The Richmond Daily Dispatch described how “by one patriotic impulse, the populace seized the ropes and began to draw the vehicle and its load up Main Street.” The more the wagon advanced, the greater the number of pullers, until “some four or five hundred men soon manned the ropes.”
The crate wouldn’t fit through the gate at 10th and Capitol streets. Three panels were yanked out and two trees uprooted. The multitude again grasped the ropes and, with a patriotic cheer, dragged the crate to the foot of the pedestal. The Dispatch predicted the day “to be long remembered in Richmond, as one of the most exciting in its history.”
Engineer Capt. Charles Dimmock spent several weeks building a derrick capable of hefting the 21-foot-high statue onto its pedestal. Some 2,000 people watched the seven-hour operation on Jan. 21. The Patrick Henry and John Marshall statues were also installed. Afterward, a tarp covered the monument for its Feb. 22, 1858, unveiling. To Greenough, the image reproduced here, though dated to the actual event, seems instead from the January exercise. “All that construction material littering the grounds looks more like the raising than the revealing,” he says.
The appointed day brought a Richmond wintry mix of snow, rain and ice pellets. The procession continued anyway, which the Daily Dispatch described as “the longest Richmond had ever witnessed, taking an hour to pass a given point.” This followed speechifying from dignitaries of city, state and federal government; martial displays; recitations of grandiloquent poetry and, afterward, great public receptions.
Renowned orator Edward Everett spoke at one event. His massive speeches include a two-hour epic given seven years later at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery ahead of Abraham Lincoln’s two-minute address.
Ever since, critics have complained that Washington is too big for the tiny horse and, with an arm up, that the narrow figure resembles a weather vane. A frustrated Confederate congressman admonished his colleagues that Washington glared at them while pointing to the State Penitentiary. Nevertheless, the statue became the template for the Great Seal of the Confederacy. The Civil War interrupted the completion of the monument, and all six accompanying statues and allegorical figures weren’t in place until August 1868.