The Tripoli Monument

Described by B. H. Latrobe

erected at the Navy Yard, Washington
Engraved for the Analectic Magazine & Naval Chronicle
Published by M. Thomas

Benjamin Henry Latrobe the architect who installed the Tripoli Monument, at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC., gave this description to Timothy Alden which he published in A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions, with Occasional Notes in 1814.

The Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle by Moses Thomas republished Latrobes remarks in the the December 1815 issue (Volume 6).

“This monument owes its existence, not to public gratitude in our national government, nor to patriotic feelings of the citizens at large; but to the private friendship and admiration of the officers of the navy, who, of their own accord, assigned a portion of their pay to the erection of a memorial of actions as heroic as any that were ever achieved in naval warfare; from which, although they shared in the glory, their country alone derived the benefit.

“The care of procuring the monument to be made was committed to captain Porter, now [1813] commanding the Essex. He was very much aided by the zeal of the bishop of Florence, whose interest in the American cause arose not so much from the feelings of a catholic ecclesiastic against the infidels, as from an enlightened view of the pernicious effects of a system of piracy, nursed by the policy of the European powers, to which America alone had dared to oppose the remedy of actual force. By the influence of the bishop, Micali, of Leghorn, was induced to give the aid of his art on terms so exceedingly moderate, that the original expense of a monument, which, at the usual rate of charge for sculpture, would have cost twice as much, did not quite reach 3000 dollars.

“When finished, the blocks and figures were carefully packed up, and brought over in the Constitution frigate to Newport, R.I. from whence they were, in another vessel, brought to Washington. In this circuitous voyage several of the blocks of the monument, and many of the slabs, composing the lower base, were broken, and it became necessary to substitute a base of freestone in its stead.

“On its arrival, it became a question where it should be erected. The capitol of the United States was pointed out as the proper place. But the unfinished state of that building and the size of the monument were objections. However, congress was applied to, in the first place, for the sum of a thousand dollars, to [Page 460] defray the expense of putting it up. The application, though renewed in various shapes, proved altogether vain. The idea of placing it in the capitol was of course given up, and the navy yard, originally the most proper situation, was chosen. To defray the expense of its erection, which could not be much less than eight hundred dollars, a further subscription by officers of the navy was made, to which other citizens contributed. The navy department also gave every aid and facility to the work, which could legally be afforded, and in the year 1808 the monument was placed where it now stands; the principal object of view to all those who enter the yard, either by land or water, and to an extensive portion of the city and of the port.

“The general style of the work is not of bad taste, and there are many points about it that are very excellent. Its execution is not of the first class, but it is not in any part bad, and, for a work standing in our climate, in the open air, it is sufficient. The six figures, which surround the column, are very unequal in merit and execution. That of Commerce, at the northeast angle, is the best. The figure of America is the worst, and is unfortunately the most conspicuous, as that of Commerce is the least so.

“The monument itself consists of a rostral column, of the Roman Doric order, mounted on a pedestal, to which the character of a sarcophagus is given. On the top of the column is the American eagle, bearing a scroll, with the federal motto, E PLURIBUS UNUM. The column itself has, on the east and west sides, each three antique rostra, or beaks of gallies, and, on the north and south, antique anchors in flat relief.

“The pedestal has on the south side the inscription:

Hic decoræ functorum in bello virorum cineres,

“Here are deposited the sacred [decoræ, handsome, cannot be literally translated] ashes of men who fell in war.

“The column, with its pedestal, stands upon a square block, of very excellent proportions. The block has a cymatium, of semicircular compartments, on which are sculptured in basso relievo, alternately, a Turkish turbaned mask, and a trophy of Turkish arms. This part of the work is in very excellent taste.

“On each side of the block is a panel. That to the south represents, in basso relievo, a view of Tripoli from nature, with a frigate and gun-boats in the fore-ground, attacking the town. This, like all landscapes, and representations of air and water and smoke in sculpture, is a work of no effect or beauty; but will serve as a record of the appearance of Tripoli in the year 1804.

“On the north side is this inscription:

Erected to the memory of captain Richard Somers, lieutenants James Caldwell, James Decatur, Henry Wadsworth, Joseph Israel, and John S. Dorsey, who fell in the different attacks that were made on the city of Tripoli in the year of our Lord, 1804, and in the twenty-eighth year of the independence of the United States.

“On the east side:

The love of Glory inspired them, Fame has crowned their deeds, History records the event, the children of Columbia admire, and Commerce laments their fall.

“On the west:

As a small tribute of respect to their memory, and of admiration of their valour, so worthy of imitation, their brother officers have erected this monument.

“The block on which these inscriptions are cut is raised upon three steps, at three angles of which are placed:

“At the southeast, a female figure, having on her head a diadem of feathers, a covering like the short petticoat attached to the Roman Lorica, also of ostrich feathers, round the waist, and Roman leggins and shoes, but otherwise naked, represents America. She leads up to the monument two children from the lower step, and points upwards to the inscription on the pedestal. This is a badly imagined and executed figure, and has nothing of the native American character or costume.

“At the northeast angle sits History. She is represented by a tolerably good female figure fully clothed, holding a book in her left hand, and a pen of bronze gilt in her right. She looks upward to the column, and appears on the point of commencing to write. This figure is well placed, well imagined, and her attitude is very good: but the sculpture is faulty, especially about the neck.

“At the northeast corner is a figure of Commerce standing. His right hand points to the column, with the caduceus in the left. This is by far the best figure of the whole, in drawing, attitude, and spirit, and must have been executed either by a superior artist, or from a model by a first rate sculptor.

“At the northwest corner the figure of the winged Victory is elevated to the summit of the square block that supports the column. In her right hand she holds a wreath of laurel over the sarcophagus; in her left a branch of palm, of bronze gilt. The figure is but indifferent, but the general effect is good.

“At each corner is an urn lamp, of black variegated marble, with a flame of bronze gilt.

“The whole monument is placed on a square mass of solid freestone, about five feet high, and sixteen feet wide, which is [to be] surrounded at a small distance by a circular iron railing.

“All the figures are as large as life, and the whole forms a very well proportioned pyramidal group of sixteen feet base and thirty feet in height. Excepting the base, the whole work is executed in white Carrara marble.

“It is to be regretted, that the marble blocks, of which this monument is composed, are not of such form and dimensions as would have enabled the architect, in putting it up, to have secured it against the effects of frost. But in this respect, too much regard has been had to cheapness, and although every possible precaution was used, and all the blocks were bound together by brass clamps, the joints have been opened considerably by the frost; and the evil is irremediable, because there can be no means of securing them effectually from the wet. Still, with this defect, the work is so firmly tied together and secured, that it will probably stand, where it now does, for some centuries.”