January 2020’s honoring of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Heroes brings up memories of the Civil War and a mysterious woman cast in bronze, for when the South separated from the North, the Union lifted Lady Freedom above the Capitol dome.
Lady Freedom’s plaster model was created by American sculptor, Thomas Crawford (1814-1857) in Rome, Italy. Crawford was commissioned in 1854 to design a statue for the U.S. Capitol dome. Montgomery C. Meigs was supervisor and engineer of the Capitol project at the time. He lived in Washington during the years that lead up to the Civil War and is known to have written in his daily journals of his hatred for slavery and his support for the Union. Meigs was to oversee the statue’s design, shipment and installation.
Crawford wrote to Meigs just before his untimely death in what may have been great concern for he had been sick and possibly knew of his own coming demise. In the letter he asked that the colossal statue of “America” be created as a “masterpiece of bronze art” and cast in Munich.
The masterpiece of bronze art was surely to occur, but Munich was not to be the place where Lady Freedom would be cast as she set sail in the spring of 1858 from Livorno, Italy for the United States of America. The sculptor’s wife, Louisa was in charge of the nearly 20 feet of finely-shaped plaster and its safe departure. The model was irreplaceable.
The plaster had to be divided into five main pieces and put into six smaller crates in order to fit within the ship’s cargo space. Lady Freedom was made sea-worthy, and her journey across the Atlantic from Italy to the USA was to be tumultuous — she would almost be tossed over-board — but that story is to be told in the forthcoming book by Katya Miller. We now focus on her arrival….
The ship that housed her plaster of paris parts finally arrived into the New York harbor, December 27,1858 after having left Rome, April 19, 1858, but some boxes were missing. Thankfully, they were tracked down and on March 30,1859, nearly one year after Freedom left her Italian origins, she came together in Washington, D.C. All boxes went immediately into storage for the Capitol dome’s construction had yet to be completed.
Before the mid-nineteenth century, Americans did not have the technology to cast bronze sculpture in the United States, but by the late 1840s, they began to be developed with the help of European trained workmen. Meigs wanted the best and he set out to get it.
Meigs became interested in Clark Mills and his foundry which had just opened up inside the District of Columbia. This was around the same time of Abraham Lincoln’s victory as President of the United States and just before the Christmas of 1859 when the union had begun to break-up. The Civil War was just about to start and Lady Freedom was about to be cast.
Once the Clark Mills foundry was selected, the crates were transported to the foundry just within the boundary of Washington’s District of Columbia. Clark Mills, originally a New Yorker and a sculptor, bought a young slave in Charleston, South Carolina by the name of Philip Reid. Mills knew he had a talent for the foundry business so he paid $1200.00 dollars for him. He was not to be disappointed. In fact, Reid was to become highly esteemed. Work on the casting of the Statue of Freedom began in May of 1860.
Historical documents show that about half the workforce that built the U.S. Capitol were slaves. They dug trenches and ditches and hauled lumber. Many worked in the quarries of Virginia digging, cutting and transporting the building stones. One of many born into slavery, Philip Reid had a special mission to fulfill.
The story goes that the man originally in charge of casting the statue was ordered to take the plaster model apart, but he refused without higher pay. No one knew how to do it, but Reid stepped in. Reid figured out how to disassemble the plaster model. He knew how to rig a block and tackle, and then he guided his co-workers to slowly tug on the plaster cast. This revealed the “hairline cracks” which showed the statues’ separate parts. It was a great success!
Reid went on to supervise the final casting of the statue in five sections each weighing over a ton, and after the casting was complete and the molten metal had cooled, casting flaws and irregularities were repaired by hand.
By May 1862, when the statue was finished and temporarily displayed on the Capitol grounds, Phillip Reid and all other enslaved people in the District of Columbia were free.
The memorial plaque shown was dedicated to Philip Reid/Reed at his final resting place in 2014 at the National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland. He changed the spelling of his name after casting the Lady of Freedom.
Photograph: Memorial Plaque
National Harmony Memorial Park, Landover, Maryland