|The Peace Monument (photo by the author). Click on any of the photos in the article to enlarge them.|
When the Civil War ended, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (1802-1878) made Porter superintendent of the Naval Academy, where he would go on to institute many reforms that enhanced the professionalism of the navy. While at the Academy, Porter worked to get the new naval monument built so that it could join the venerable Tripoli Monument at Annapolis. He collected contributions from Naval officers and seamen totaling $9,000 and sketched out the design of the monument himself. Sculptor Franklin Simmons (1839-1913), who also sculpted the equestrian figure of General John A. Logan at the center of Logan Circle, was hired to carve the figures for the monument in fine white Carrara marble in his studio in Rome. So far so good. A reading of the National Register listing for Civil War monuments in Washington suggests that the ensuing production of the memorial was accomplished with efficiency and purpose: "The sculpture was erected by the government with contributions from Navy personnel under a Congressional Act approved July 31, 1876 (19 Stat. 114). It was sculpted and carved in Rome in 1877 and dedicated in the same year."
|The Peace Monument c. 1880, from a stereoview in the author's collection.|
A contract with sculptor Simmons had been signed in 1871, and the Baltimore Sun reported in 1873 that Simmons was making good progress and was expected to finish the work in about two years. The monument at that time was a straightforward paean to the war's lost naval heroes. It included two allegorical figures atop a grand 40-foot pedestal: America (or perhaps it is Grief) weeping for her lost sons on the shoulder of History, who records the names of the heroes for all time in a book. On the front of the pedestal a third figure, representing Victory, holds a laurel wreath over two smaller cherubic figures representing Neptune (the Navy) and Mars (the Marines). According to the Sun, once completed, the monument would "be conveyed to Annapolis in a man-of-war."
|The front (western) side of the memorial. Photo by the author.|
|Detail of the figures of America (Grief) and History.|
|Victory, with Mars and Neptune at her feet.|
|The pedestal, basin and granite piers for lampposts.|
|One of the unfinished granite lamppost piers.|
Interpreting the thematically complex monument—the grieving pair at the top, Victory on one side, Peace on the other—was challenging even at the time it was built. As early as May 1877, while the monument was still under construction, the National Republican felt compelled to publish a clarification about its meaning:
The misnomer "Statue of Peace" is applied to the structure now under process of erection at the intersection of Pennsylvania avenue and First street, at the foot of the Capitol ground. It isn't a "Statue of Peace." It is a monument to commemoriate the deeds of our navy during the war of the rebellion...An Evening Star reporter queried one of the German laborers working on the monument as to its meaning. "Vell, I don't can tell you vot dem vimmens is already, but I tink dey be officers' vives." the laborer supposedly replied. "One of dem vimmens, de one what cry all de time, she just heard dot her husband got wounded, and she feel awful bad about dot, and she don't can write, so she get de udder vimmen mit de fedder pen to write a letter for her."
Though many people greatly admired the towering memorial, it had plenty of detractors as well. The sorrowful figure of America, hanging on the shoulder of History, seemed a bit maudlin even in Victorian times. The Star formally reviewed the monument in June 1877 and found much to be desired.
For a work of its importance, it is deficient in originality and power; but it is likely that the artist was in some degree hampered in his efforts, since it is given out that the design is in whole or in part that of a high naval officer—who probably knows a good deal more about the high seas than he does about high art.The Star reviewer went on to liken it to cemetery memorials "which rich and disconsolate husbands who marry again in a year or two are in the habit of erecting over the graves of their recently deceased wives." Last but not least, the siting was criticized, as the monument seemed to be overwhelmed by the Capitol building behind it. It would have fared better "against rich green foliage or the clear blue sky, like the splendid Scott statue in the 16th street circle." The Post would comment some years later that "it is quite the most depressing and lugubrious bit of marble that we can remember having seen anywhere outside of a graveyard."
|The figure of Peace on the rear (eastern) side of the monument.|
The whole composition of the work is new, and quite unlike any other memorial erected to commemorate the Civil War. The composition and the general simplicity of the design and execution of the drapery shows that the artist made a careful study of the best models of antiquity, and endeavored to form a style after the best principles of classic art. This group, when it was completed by Mr. Simmons in his studio at Rome, excited great interest among the artists of all nations, and it was generally spoken of as one of the most original and satisfactory works of our time.
|Postcard view of the monument in the 1910s (author's collection).|
Masterpiece or not, the monument has languished at the foot of Capital Hill ever since. In the late 19th century, before so much of the surrounding area was turned into empty green space, this was a rather desolate and unsafe neighborhood. In 1884, a certain John L. Ransom was attacked and robbed under the tranquil gaze of the Peace Monument's figures after he had emerged from nearby Bryan's Saloon. A letter to the editor of the Post in 1894 complained that the monument had become "rather a tramp headquarters than a monument to the beautiful angel of peace." A trolley car employee, "under a greasy umbrella" stood watch over a "horrible pit," with a stable just behind the monument filled with the "spavined skeletons" of the horses who dragged trolley cars, known as herdics, up Capitol Hill. What's more, "the water basin surrounding the monument has long been dry, and is a convenient receptacle for the garbage collected by wind and weather instead of being the handsome fountain and pool which it was intended to be." The following year a fight erupted at the base of the monument between Edward Lackey and Charles Ward, two men "well known to the police" over who should pay their trolley fare. Lackey's hand was slashed, and both men were thrown in jail. Grief, History, Victory, and Peace all looked on, unmoved.
|The Peace Monument c. 1910, still a trolley stop (Source: Library of Congress).|
In 1904, the Army was given the responsibility for maintaining the memorial as the surrounding areas were cleaned up, cleared of railroad tracks, saloons, stables, canal remnants, and other structures, and the modern pristine landscape was created.
|Postcard view of the monument in the 1910s (author's collection).|
Little, if anything has been done over the years to preserve the never-finished monument, and the marble figures are now badly eroded. It appears that a chunk of marble broke from the side of the head of History at one point, and a clumsy repair was made. The faces of all of the figures have worn down to the point that they seem to have a vague, ghostly presence. The left arm of Peace broke off at one point and has been repaired. The right arm of the cherubic Neptune also broke off but was never replaced.
|The faces of America and History as they appear today (photo by the author).|
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Sources for this article included: George Rothwell Brown, Washington: A Not Too Serious History (1930); Federal Writers' Project, Washington City and Capital (1937); James M. Goode, Washington Sculpture (2008); B. Randolph Keim, Keim's Illustrated Hand-Book: Washington and Its Environs (1883); the National Register listing for Civil War monuments in Washington; and newspaper articles.