Battle Monument, begun in 1815 and completed in 1825, was designed by architect Maximilian Godefroy (1765–c. 1838) to commemorate those who died in the War of 1812 during the British attack on Baltimore in September 1814. It was the first significant commemorative war memorial in the United States, honoring the thirty-nine Baltimoreans who died in the conflict, regardless of rank. Constructed at the same time as the monument to George Washington at Mount Vernon Place, the two structures prompted President John Quincy Adams in 1827 to proclaim Baltimore as the “Monumental City.” The appeal of the Battle Monument’s design is demonstrated by its use as the official emblem of the City of Baltimore, adopted for the city’s seal in 1827. Stylistically the monument combines Egyptian with neoclassical architectural forms. It is believed that Godefroy, a Frenchman, was influenced by the popularity of neoclassicism in his native country, sparked by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798–1799. Godefroy is second only to Benjamin Henry Latrobe among important architects practicing in Baltimore during the first half of the nineteenth century. In addition to the Battle Monument, Godefroy is responsible for the designs of the landmark neoclassical First Unitarian Church. He was also trained as an engineer and worked on the fortifications at Fort McHenry, images of which appear in the monument’s frieze, along with North Point, both sites of the 1814 conflict.
The Battle of Baltimore was an attack on land and sea in which American forces successfully repelled the British and killed their commanding officer, Robert Ross. Baltimore, as a key port city, was crucial to American commerce, which made it a strategic target. After an initial meeting at North Point, the Americans were forced to retreat but they inflicted numerous casualties upon the British and delayed their advance. Following the British Royal Navy’s bombardment of Fort McHenry the American flag still waved, inspiring Francis Scott Key to compose the poem that became the “Star-Spangled Banner” song, designated as the national anthem in 1931.
The Battle Monument is 39 feet in height and constructed entirely of marble. Its base resembles an Egyptian cenotaph, upon which rests a column carved in the form of a Roman fasces or bundle of staves, topped by an allegorical statue of a female figure, referred to as “Lady Baltimore.” This combination form was one of three schemes Godefroy submitted (the others were an obelisk and a sarcophagus). The cenotaph base consists of eighteen rusticated layers of marble symbolizing the number of states in the union, and includes false doors to enhance its tomb-like appearance. It suggests the Egyptian themes of dignity and eternity. The false doors each contain a black marble tablet bearing an inscription and are “guarded” at each upper corner by griffins, the symbol of immortality. Reliefs of a winged solar disk occupy the lintels above each door. The cords that bind the column or fasces, the Roman symbol for unity, bear the names of the thirty-nine military personnel who died in the battle. The female crowned victory figure holds a laurel wreath in one hand and a rudder in the other, symbols of glory and navigation (or stability), respectively. Most of the sculpture is the work of Antonio Capellano, who also produced sculptures for Godefroy’s First Unitarian Church and St. Paul’s Cathedral, both in Baltimore, and for the U.S. Capitol. The Battle Monument is elevated three steps, one for each year of the war. The monument was built on what was then Washington Square, site of the county courthouse and a fashionable residential address; it is now known as Battle Monument Square.
Architect Godefroy received a classical education and advanced training as a civil engineer in his native France, but was eventually exiled for his opposition to the Napoleonic regime. He emigrated from France to Baltimore in 1805, accepting a position as professor of civil and military architecture at St. Mary’s College, where he executed his first major work, St. Mary’s Seminary Chapel, in 1808. It is said to be the first church built in the Gothic Revival style in America. In 1818 Godefroy completed what is regarded as his finest design and a masterpiece of romantic classicism, the First Unitarian Church. The Battle Monument ranks next among his significant designs to survive. Godefroy returned to Europe in 1819, marking the end of his Baltimore career.
Dilts, James, and John Dorsey. A Guide to Baltimore Architecture. 3rd ed. Centreville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers, 1997.
Hayward, Mary Ellen, and Frank R. Shivers, Jr. The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Hunter, Wilbur Harvey. “The Battle Monument,” HABS No. MD-185. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1959.