More than meets the eye: Uncovering the hidden history of the George Washington Equestrian Monument

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It has stood at the gates of Capitol Square steadfast and strong since 1858, but there is more to the George Washington Equestrian Monument than meets the eye.

“What makes this hidden, if you will, is the fact that this was also to be a tomb for Washington,” says Richmond Tour Guys guide, Ray Kaufman. “It’s called a cenotaph which means an unused tomb.”

Unused, Kaufman explains, because it took decades to become a reality.

After Washington died in 1799, the General Assembly wanted to inter his remains at the Capitol.

“They went out to the world, if you will, to try and find a sculptor,” Kaufman relays.

It was a lengthy search, and raising enough money for the project took years too.

Finally, more than 50 years after its conception, the monument was complete. Lawmakers approached Washington’s family.

“And they said, ‘No, no way,’ says Kaufman. “He was going to stay with Martha.”

Washington’s remains remained at Mt. Vernon, and the 60-foot statue featuring Washington on a horse became known for what it did have instead of what it did not.

“To me, it’s one of the most interesting monuments to be found anywhere in the country,” Kaufman points out.

Figures of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Lewis, John Marshall, Thomas Nelson and Patrick Henry stand on a lower tier. Each one also has an allegorical figure in front of it representing an issue of the day.

“Crushing the crown of England. Revolution,” Kaufman shares the meaning of the symbolism of the cast in front of Henry.

Visitors at the monument also notice a door swung open permanently. It is the entrance to what would have been Washington’s final resting place.

Kaufman says that door still sparks plenty of questions today.

“No, nobody has ever been entombed here,” Kaufman says in jest. “And to my knowledge, no ghosts.”

There is, however, a tragic story connected to the monument. Its sculptor, Thomas Crawford, started losing his vision and was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away at age 47 in 1857 before his work even made it to the Capitol.

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