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Battle Monument

Calvert at Fayette Streets,
Baltimore

This, our last Halt on the Cavalcade, is the first to touch directly on the Society of the War of 1812 in the State of Maryland. Some time during the forenoon of Wednesday, September 14(1814) — as the British vessels dwindled on the horizon of the Bay— men from the Fort McHenry garrison and the gunners from Covington’ s and Webster’s (or Six-Gun) batteries behind the fort founded an association to memorialize their share in the defense of Baltimore. This rendezvous marked the spontaneous and informal origin of our Society. In due course these and veterans from the other defense points ringing the City contributed money to buy the land on which Battle Monument stands, helped raise more money to pay for its construction, and saw to it that the shaft carried the names of certain of the more noteworthy officers and men who had perished during what novelist Neil Swanson has labeled that “perilous fight.” (Over the years, not surprisingly, local newspapers would print occasional letters to the Editor expostulating that such-and-such a name had been callously ignored.)

Cornerstone laid September 12, 1815; surmounting figure emplaced September 12, 1822; project completed 1825. Fifty-two feet high, of finest Carrara marble shipped direct to Baltimore from Livorno (Leghorn). The fasces constituting the shaft are thirty-nine feet high, to commemorate the inauguration of the project in the thirty-ninth year of American independence.

Battle Monument is the joint creation of the Parisian emigre Maximilian Godefroy, who submitted no less than three designs without charge, and the Florentine sculptor Antonio Capellano, who, before arriving in America in search of commissions, had been household sculptor for Prince Joseph Bonaparte and later chief sculptor to the court of Spain. His marble bust of George Washington stands in the Peale Museum.

The symbolic figure of Lady Baltimore atop the shaft rests her left hand on a ship’s rudder, the sign of navigation, and raises a laurel wreath of victory aloft in her right. At her feet repose the National Eagle and a bomb, symbolizing the attack on Fort McHenry. The figure, the eagles, and the relief decoration were all executed by Capellano, who resided in Baltimore some six years before returning home to Italy. That this uniquely regional American structure should be the product of a Frenchman and an Italian is only another example of the workings of the so-called “melting pot.”

This massive creation, together with Robert Mill’s column to the Father of His Country on Mount Vernon Place—begun the same year but not completed till 1828 — are the chief reasons our Maryland metropolis was presently to be dubbed “The Monumental City." Of all the statuary in this metropolis Battle Monument is the most distinctive. Since 1827 it has served as the municipal seal.

The cornerstone was laid jointly by Mayor Edward Johnson (who had held that post throughout the war), Generals Smith and Stricker, and Lt. Col. George Armistead on the first anniversary of the North Point phase of the Battle of Baltimore. With General Smith as marshal of the proceedings, there was a grand parade and celebration and an oration by James Kemp, Episcopal Bishop of Maryland.

Subscriptions for the project had at first been restricted to five dollars apiece, in order to stimulate area-wide giving. When the returns proved insufficient, the limitation was removed. Donations arrived from Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as Maryland, but not a penny of municipal funds was used; here, truly, was a community endeavor. The subscription book listing all the donors’ names was placed with the cornerstone and a duplicate deposited in the City Library at City Hall (since dissolved). The four doors are false, but are intended to suggest that the named slam are interred within.

Ever since that long-ago time — think of it! every year — your Society has memorialized what came to be known as Defenders Day by a procession either beginning or concluding at Battle Monument. In 1915 the centenary of the corners tone laying was commemorated by the emplacement of the handsome bronze tablet on the south base, providing some of the history of this landmark.

At least by the early Nineteen Twenties the personal battle of Battle Monument began against the internal-combustion engine In 1923 came the initial proposal to move it elsewhere in the City so that the gasoline buggy might enjoy untrammelled passage. Later arose the suggestion that the whole pile really ought to be hefted over to the west corner to get it out of the way of traffic. Fortunately none of these notions prevailed. It was not long however before the area immediately around the monument began to be nibbled at by City officials cars as a reserved space parking lot.

In 1938 a great windstorm blew off Lady Baltimore s upraised arm together with the laurel wreath.

In 1960 the Mayor’s Downtown Landscaping Commission abolished the unsightly car-park area and in due course produced the handsome terrace we now see (Eve Sun Sept 6 1960 ) At the same time nevertheless the Administration crumbled before political pressure and installed a newspaper kiosk on the south abutment. Under President Robert E. Michel your Society fought doggedly against this depredation, but to no avail. On April 19, 1960, the Sun printed a letter to the Editor from the present speaker icily protesting the presence of this excruciating eyesore, this obnoxious excrescence, this self-evident abomination.” On December 10, 1970, the same paper printed a second letter from the same source rejoicing in the kiosk’s removal.

The cannon mounted at the corners of the base fired warning shots to the city of Baltimore that the British Navy had arrived on September 14, 1814. The guns were most likely mounted on Federal Hill.

Sources

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