Washington Didn’t Sleep In Richmond

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No sooner had Richmond, Virginia, fallen to Union troops on April 3, 1865, than photographers entered the former Confederate capital. Mathew Brady and his team were there; so was the firm of Alexander Gardner. On April 14, John Reekie, working for Gardner, made the moody photograph above of a war-weary populace clustered near the Washington Monument, at the edge of Capitol Square. In the foreground are some recently paroled Confederate soldiers. Dedicated only three years before the start of the war, the monument appears to have survived the conflict undamaged. And even today its encirclement by automobiles and state office buildings doesn’t diminish its sixty-foot-high presence.

The monument was a long time in the making. In 1816 Virginia’s General Assembly first proposed to raise funds for a sculpted crypt in Richmond to house the body of the President. But the late President’s nephew Bushrod Washington refused to go along with the scheme, explaining that his uncle had wished to be (and presumably stay) buried at Mount Vernon. Nevertheless, plans for a memorial moved slowly forward until, in 1849, one hundred thousand dollars finally was raised, and the sculptor Thomas Crawford was hired. Crawford modeled the statue in Rome and had it cast in bronze in Munich. In Rome it caught the eye of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who described it in his notebook as a “foolish and illogical piece of work- Washington mounted on a very uneasy steed, on a very narrow space.” The smaller statues, Hawthorne continued, were “not looking up to wonder at his predicament, but each intent on manifesting his own personality to the world around.”

Over the years occasional criticism, like Hawthorne’s, hasn’t daunted the people of Richmond, who are fond enough of their nearly 130-year-old uninhabited crypt to have supported a recent $200,000 face-lift that should see it safely into the next century.