When Liberty Lost Her Head: The Yorktown Victory Monument

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A watercolor (on paper, lined with cloth) created by Richard Morris Hunt in 1884 of the Monument to Alliance and Victory. This work shows the original Liberty statue designed by Henry van Burnt. (Library of Congress)

YORKTOWN — Looming proud above Historic Yorktown stands Lady Liberty perched upon the Monument to Alliance and Victory. Or, better known to locals as, the Victory Monument.

The tall statue was built to commemorate the October 19, 1781 surrender of Cornwallis’ army to General George Washington in this most historic place of Yorktown. It is also the symbol of an abiding friendship that exists between the Americans and the French for the latter’s aid in achieving just such a victory.

On October 29, 1781, just ten days following the historic surrender, which officially severed the former British colonies from the nation across the ocean, the plan to build such a grand display of victorious achievement was approved. However, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, funds were hard to come by and the plan to build the monument was put on the backburner for a bit.

In fact, it would be just shy of 100 years before it would actually take shape.

On October 19, 1881, in recognition of the centennial of the surrender and in the midst of Reconstruction, the cornerstone of the Victory Monument was laid.

Designed by Boston-based sculptor, Henry van Burnt, the 95-foot-tall statue was designed in the Victorian style of the day. Lady Liberty stood at the very top, reaching her arms out to the sky. Words were etched into the stone, honoring the victory a century prior. Upon its completion on August 12, 1884, the Monument to Alliance and Victory stood high above the rural riverfront township.

The monument was so important that, for several years following its completion, an enlisted soldier stood watch over it.

This was a symbol of both local and national pride and for the achievements of the country’s forefathers. It was a testament to strong international relations, the tenacity of an infantile nation, and of the victory to led to America’s sovereignty.

And there it stood, with Liberty peacefully looking over the York River, until July 29, 1942.

During a fierce thunderstorm, a lightning bolt struck Liberty’s granite body. Her arms were sheered off and her head dramatically toppled to the ground. The remainder of her body was shattered and the base of the monument itself was damaged.

The site of the destroyed local icon was horrifying; having happened in the early days of America’s intervention into World War II. However, with funding and home front efforts diverted to the war, repairing the somewhat destroyed monument was far from a priority.

RELATED STORY: French Air and Space Force Will Join USAF to Pay Tribute in Yorktown

After the war ended, the Sons of the American Revolution picked up the torch to restore the statue to its former glory.

In 1947, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Girard Davidson estimated that repairs would cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. After much discussion, Davidson agreed that instead of restoring the existing Liberty, it would make more financial sense to have a new one commissioned.

Victory Monument
Yorktown Victory Monument with the second Liberty statue, designed by Virginia sculptor J.W. Hansen. (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

Acclaimed sculptor and Charlottesville resident, Oskar J.W. Hansen, previously known for creating the monolithic bronze winged statues located at the Hoover Dam in Nevada, was tasked in creating the new focal point of the monument and it was to be delivered within 18 months.

Two large slabs of granite, weighing a total of 34,489 pounds, arrived at his studio soon thereafter.

The final statue took several years longer to finish than anticipated. Additionally, Congress ended up paying Hansen roughly $100,000 over budget.

The new Liberty was not what many were expecting. It was much larger than the original, standing at 14 feet tall and weighing 22,600 pounds. While the original Liberty was in line with the rest of the monument’s Victorian-era design, this new Liberty was inspired by classical sculptors.

After its completion, Hansen went on to argue that the current pedestal would have to be replaced due to possible stability issues. He also stated that the shaft would need to be filled with gunmetal. However, the underlying issue was that the Victorian design did not match the aesthetic of his new statue.

The National Park Service moved forward with investigating Hansen’s claims. The department estimated that it would cost an additional $335,000 to replace the pedestal. Much to Hansen’s chagrin, the end result was to reinforce the currently standing structure to support the large, new Liberty.

Lady Liberty took up residence at the top of the Victory Monument in 1956 and it is there that she has stood since. She remains a proud symbol of the victory won just steps from her base in 1781 and an emblem of the international friendship that brought a new nation together. The aesthetic differences between Van Burnt and Hansen’s statues are lost to us who, instead, look upon Liberty with affection and pride for what symbolizes the birth of our country.

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