Monday, October 19, 2009
Tripoli Monument at Annapolis
In Respect to Their Memory and Admiration of Their Valor
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The United States Naval Institute
Naval History Magazine
The ornate, allegorical Tripoli Monument is a memorial to six U.S. naval officers' ultimate sacrifice during the Barbary War.
On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, sandwiched between Leahy Hall and Preble Hall, lies an unlikely looking military memorial. It's elaborate, asymmetrical appearance, however, belies its rich martial past. In fact, the white marble statuary is the United States' oldest military monument, built to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of U.S. naval officers during the Barbary War against Tripoli and originally funded by their fellow officers.
The monument was the idea of David Porter, who would rise to become commodore of the U.S. Navy. A former first lieutenant of the frigate Philadelphia, he had been held as a prisoner of war in Tripoli after the Barbary State's capture of the vessel. Released in June 1805 at the conclusion of the Barbary War, Porter continued to serve in the Mediterranean Squadron and was soon promoted to master commandant and given command of the newly refurbished schooner Enterprise. He spent much of his time carrying dispatches from port to port around the Mediterranean.
In addition to his official duties, Porter took it upon himself to initiate a project to create a memorial honoring the six U.S. naval officers who perished in the war.
His duties gave him many opportunities to communicate with members of the squadron's dispersed units and to solicit their officers for funds to finance the monument. In fact, he drew up a careful schedule of "dues": Captains and commanding officers were expected to donate $20 each; wardroom officers, mainly lieutenants, were to contribute $10 apiece; and midshipmen, surgeon's mates, etc. $5. (This equates to 20-25% of one month's pay for each category).
By January 1806, Porter had raised at least $1,200 and was able to enlist the Reverend Thomas Hall, an American residing in Leghorn, as director of the project.
Porter initially gave Hall little more direction than saying he wanted a memorial. The reverend, who envisioned a work like Joseph Wilton's ornate monument to General James Wolfe in Westminister Abbey, wrote to the highly respected Danish neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen in Rome for ideas. But Thorvaldsen was slow to respond, and another sculptor, Giovanni Carlo Micali, received the commission.
While Porter claimed credit for the memorial's design, he had envisioned an outdoor commemorative monumnet for some public square. However, Micali, and apparently everyone else, foresaw a funerary monument to be installed in a major public building, a popular practice in 18th-century Europe, and that is what the sculptor created.
By the end of 1806, Micali had completed the monument, carvfed from soft, white Carrara marble and about thirty feet high. Its soaring rostral column is topped by an American eagle said to have been copied from the image of one on a naval officer's coat button.
The small pedestal immediately below the column bears the engraving "Hoic decorae functorum in bella virorum cineres" ("Here are deposited the sacred ashes of men who fell in the war.")
The column and pedestal are atop a much larger block, on the front of which is a bas-relief of what appears to be the first U.S. attack on Tripoli in early August 1804.
Six allegorical figures are arranged asymmetrically at various levels of the memorial: a winged Victory or Glory; History in the act of recording the glorious deeds; America, a rather fanciful bare-breasted but caped Indian princess; two cherubic children representing the American people; and Commerce, who holds a cornucopia Urns topped by golden flames were in each lowest corner.
The disassembled monument arrived in New York in November 1807 aboard the USS Constitution and was soon on its way to Washington. The next year it was reassembled in place inside the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard, not in front of the Capitol, as originally intended.
One of the blank faces of the block bearing the bas-relief was inscribed: "Erected to the memory of Captain Richard Somers, Lieutenants James Caldwell, James Decatur, Henry Wadsworth, Joseph Israel, and John S. Dorsey, who fell in different attacks, that were made on the City of Tripoli, in the year of our Lord 1804 and in the 28 year of the Independence of the United States."
On a second side was written: "As a small tribute of the respect to their memory and admiration of their valor so worthy of imitation their brother officers have erected this monument."
The monument did not rest in peace for long. When the British briefly captured Washington in August 1814, the memorial suffered some damage that is usually credited to the invaders, but given the confusion of the time and the fact the Americans themselves had fired the yard and were guilty of looting, it would seem that others had more opportunity.
The monument remained at the Navy Yard until 1831, when Congress ordered it placed in the center of the reflecting pool at the base of the steps on the west side of the Capitol.
It stayed there, the only piece of statuary on the Mall, until the autumn of 1860, when the memorial was moved to the Naval Academy, where it was intended to inspire fledgling naval officers with the memories of their heroic predecessors.
Unlike other memorials on the grounds, however, the Tripoli Monument, as it came to be called, played no central role in any midshipman activity. Exposure to the elements, meanwhile, resulted in water working its way into the monument's many seams, weakening the structure. The soft Carrara marble slowly gave way tot he onslaught of weather and increasingly polluted air and rain. The monument's sparkling whiteness became dulled, and a combination of fungi stained its surfaces with varying shades of black and red.
Toward the end of the 20th century, Naval Academy alumni began a grass-roots effort to restore the monument, which had been officially designated a National Treasure. Eventually some $40,000 was raised through alumni gifts and the efforts of the Save th Tripoli Monument Committee.
The U.S. Navy also contributed about the same amount for the work, which began in May, 2000. The basic cleaning technique was water misting (nebulized water sprayed at low pressure), while restorers used calcim chlorite on the more difficult fungal areas. They also filled large cracks with a mixture that, when dried, could be worked with a dental drill to harmonize it with its surroundings. By the end of June, almost all of the blemishes were gone, and the Tripoli Monument was once more pristine white. The urns and other missing "gold" accoutrements, such as History's quill, were not replaced.
While the Tripoli Monument has been partially restored, if this oldest of American's veterans' memorials 0 a rare naval one - is to be preserved, steps need to be taken to provide it with a sheltered site where it would be protected from the elements. Officers of the early Navy were responsible for the monument's creation. Will members of the present-day navy ensure the preservation of this piece of their heritage?