Steuben Monument, LaFayette Square - German Roots in Washington (2024)

  • Steuben Monument, LaFayette Square - German Roots in Washington (1) Photo Credit: Bruce Guthrie
    The Steuben Monument in LaFayette Square.
  • Steuben Monument, LaFayette Square - German Roots in Washington (2) Photo Credit: Bruce Guthrie
    The Steuben Monument in LaFayette Square.

Like words, phrases and songs, statues and monuments have their own history, and LaFayette Square's famous statues of European-born heroes of the American Revolution are no exception. At the four corners of the square stand statues of the Marquis de LaFayette (southwest corner, dedicated in 1891), the Comte de Rochambeau (southeast corner, a gift from France in 1902), General Thaddeus Kosciusko (northeast corner, 1910), and, later the same year, Baron Steuben (northwest corner, dedicated December 7, 1910).

As might be imagined, the placement of these statues and the elaborate festivities at their dedications right across from the White House reflected the cultural and political rivalries of countries and ethnic groups within the United States in the pre-World War I era.At the center of LaFayette Square (often referred to as Jackson Square in the past) is the heroic equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson by the American Clark Mills, cast from bronze cannon captured by Jackson in the War of 1812, and dedicated in 1853. There are two copies of the famous statue, one in the French Quarter in New Orleans (1856) and the other in Nashville, Tennessee (1880).

With statues of two French heroes of the revolution on the Square, German-Americans pressed for a monument to call their own--and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794) was the obvious subject. Baron Steuben was, after all, the most famous German-American of the American Revolution and known as the "drillmaster" who pulled together Washington's rag-tag army and enabled its success against the British. The dimensions of Steuben's symbolic and festive importance to the German-speaking community in Washington were described by Bradford Miller in 2001. The dedication--with the participation of President Taft, the German Ambassador, and many prominent German-American organizations--was the last national festive occasion for German-American friendship in the nation's capital before the catastrophe of World War I. The sculpture is the work of the German-born American sculptor Albert Jaegers (1868-1925).

Little-known is the fact that a replica of the statue of Baron Steuben was created at the same time as the original and presented by the Congress of the United States to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Nation in 1911.

Today, visitors to LaFayette Square notice the vigils more than they do the statuary. Vigils for peace and nuclear disarmament have been held on the sidewalk across from the White House continually for over twenty years. This is another DC neighborhood that serves as a crossroads for playing out local, national, and international issues.

A number of relics related to Baron Steuben are held in the library and museum of The Society of the Cincinnati at Anderson House, 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. Along with George Washington, LaFayette, and others, Baron Steuben was a founding member of this military hereditary society whose membership is limited to the descendents of Continental Army officers in the American Revolution.

Albert Jaegers, Sculptor

The statue of Steuben in Washington's LaFayette Park is the work of the German-born artist Albert Jaegers, who was born on March 28, 1868 in Elberfeld, since 1929 a section of the city of Wuppertal (North Rhine-Westphalia). Jaegers emigrated to the United States as a child and grew up in the heavily German-American city of Cincinnati, where he found work in an architect's office and became a self-taught artist. His younger sister, Augustine Jaegers, was also a prominent sculptor. In 1889, he moved to New York. In 1912, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.Jaegers was clearly a prominent and successful artist. In the obituary published after the artist's death on July 22, 1925, the New York Times noted that "Mr. Jaegers won various competitions by decision of the National Sculpture Society and his rise to prominence became so rapid that he was soon executing many works for the United States Government, among these were statuary for the Buffalo and St. Louis Expositions, the new Custom House in New York City and the Baron von Steuben statue for Washington, D.C." Prior to the unveiling of the Steuben Monument's replica in Potsdam, Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded Jaegers the fourth-class Order of the Red Eagle.

In addition to the Steuben statue, Jaegers is known for the monument to Francis Daniel Pastorius, located in Vernon Park in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The Pastorius Monument commemorates the founding of Germantown in 1683 and was funded jointly by the US Congress and the German-American Alliance; its cornerstone was laid in 1908 on the 225th anniversary of the founding. Jaegers designed the monument in 1912 and it was completed by 1917, but American entry into World War I in that year led to the finished monument being encased in a wooden box; it was finally dedicated in November, 1920.

Jaegers sculpted another work with a similar fate: his cornice sculpture entitled "Germany," created in 1907 for the United States Customs House in New York as one of twelve sculptures symbolizing commercial and seafaring powers of the ancient and modern worlds, was altered and renamed "Belgium" in 1918. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, the piece "was orginally a woman leaning on an antique shield inscribed with the word 'Kiel' which was the insignia of Kaiser Wilhelm."

TheNew York Timesrecounted:

Shortly after America's entrance into the World War, [Jaegers] declined a request coming from [Treasury] Secretary McAdoo to alter his statue representing Germany above the main cornice of the New York Custom House, to become a symbol for America's ally, Belgium. Although his refusal at the time was attributed to his having previously been decorated by the German Kaiser, Mr. Jaegers explained his attitude before the National Sculpture Society by declaring that it was manifestly impossible to change the significance of the existing statue by "a little camouflage with a relabel." He also said that the proposed expedient was indeed "a somewhat dubious honor for plucky little Belgium."

Steuben Monument, LaFayette Square - German Roots in Washington (2024)
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