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American military memorials have had considerable impact on how its nation views its past history as well as how it wants to commemorate it. While some date back to early Revolutionary years and later, its' Civil War period, there is one particular military memorial that helped develop a national icon as well as denoted mechanical feat within the world. As inscribed on the gravestone of American sculptor Clark Mills (13 December 1810 – 12 January 1883) at Gleenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C., he was the "Creator of the first self-balanced rampant equestrian Statue in the World erected in Lafayette Park at Washington to General Andrew Jackson in 1848". This was also to be the first bronze statue cast in the United States.
Self-taught in art by studying European prints of such sculptures, it is amazing that Mills had never seen his subject nor an equestrian statue until 1847 – when he was asked to submit a model of such a sculpture in honour of the triumph and overwhelming military achievements of Major General Andrew Jackson (15 March 1767 – 8 June 1845), the national hero of the Battle of New Orleans and later, the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. General Jackson was considered at that time to be 'the most distinguished citizen of the country'. In preparation for completing his design, Mills studied the anatomy of various breeds of horses and even bought a Thoroughbred horse, named 'Olympus', that would help him model Jackson's stance in the heat of the battle on 8 January 1815. On the European scene, it was unfortunate that Mills was not aware of the equestrian statue of Philip IV of Spain located in the centre of Plaza de Oriente in Madrid, considered a masterpiece not only for its artistic value but also for its technical characteristics. Italian sculptor Pietro Tacca (16 September 1577 – 26 October 1640) began the colossal bronze sculpture in 1634 and was transported to Madrid in 1640, the year of his death. Although Tacca begun his work in the classic position of that time – standing on the three or four legs of the horse – he chose to depict the monarch where the horse is rearing and supported on its hind legs. In order to tackle the difficult problem of designing the statue’s centre of gravity, Tacca received assistance from his fellow countryman and genius, Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642). Galileo first proposed to have a hollow front and solid rear but then "devised to make a steel bar divided in three, running from the chest, to the horse's tail and hind legs. Thus, the tail would also be attached to the base of the sculpture, which provides part of the secret of the horse's balance." Notwithstanding that King Philip's statue may be considered the first rampant equestrian statue, it is not self-balanced as it is held in place by a steel rod to the base – discreetly through its horse's tail. One thing for certain, Mills would have been inspired by this artistic and scientific marvel.
It was not until March 1848 that Mills received a commission from the Jackson Monument Association and accepted the $12,000 that had been raised initially by the committee. It was nine months later, in December 1848 that Mills finally completed the full-size plaster model of the horse. As there were no bronze foundries in America, Mills studied metallurgy and constructed his own foundry. After conducting many trials and experiments, the castings were completed by January 1852 and comprised of four parts for the horse and six parts for the figure of Jackson at a total weight of 15 tons. The sculpture rests on a rectangular base that is surrounded by four Spanish cannons and an iron fence. Located in a prestigious site directly across the White House – the sculpture was inaugurated on 8 January 1853, the 38th anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, in front of at least 20,000 people, including President Franklin Pierce and his entire Cabinet. Commemorating the general's victory in what is considered the final major battle of the War of 1812, Jackson is depicted on his horse named 'Duke' reviewing his troops, his chapeau raised high in salute, and his horse rearing as if to charge. It is a common belief that the stance of the horse's legs represents the outcome of the rider during battle. If the horse is rampant (rearing up on the hind legs), the rider died in battle. If the horse has one front leg up, the rider was wounded in battle or died of wounds sustained in battle. If all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died of causes other than combat. Although it is known that some Civil War memorials located in Gettysburg follow this unofficial practice, it is not generally applied within the Gettysburg National Military Park or elsewhere. If this tenet had been applied, Mills' statue would have represented General Jackson as having died in battle – which of course is untrue. After Mills sold his first casting to the federal government in 1853, its success and sensation rivaled other existing well-known European equestrian statues at that time. By popular demand he repeated his work and sold a second casting to Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontbalba from New Orleans to be unveiled in 1856 as well as a third casting to the Tennessee Historical Society that was erected in 1880 as part of Nashville's centennial celebration. A fourth and final casting of the equestrian statue was erected in 1987 in Jacksonville, Florida, after whom the town was named in 1822 and in honour of Jackson being the first governor of Florida under the United States flag in 1821.
On this day, 8 January 2022, let us commemorate the 207th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans and the 169th anniversary of the dedication of the first self-balanced rampant equestrian statue in the world and the first bronze statue cast in the United States.
André M. Levesque