The Day President Taft Came to Town
By Ellen Moyer
It was springtime in Annapolis, April 10, 1911. The townsfolk were out and about in anticipation of a big happening. Crowds milled about the grounds of St. Johns College. St. Johns at that time was a military college, and cadets joined local residents. Midshipmen from the Naval Academy were there too; USNA professor Henry Marion had arranged the occasion.
President William Howard Taft arrived with the French ambassador, Jean Jusserand. This was indeed a special occasion. The two dignitaries were in Annapolis and on the campus of St. Johns College to dedicate a monument to unknown war dead — the first of its kind anywhere in the world. This first tomb to unknown soldiers would honor the French soldiers who gave their lives for American independence 130 years earlier.
President Taft stepped to the podium. The milling crowd stood silent, hushed. “But here … where the men whose memory we celebrate are unknown to us by name … let this occasion be distinctly marked by gratitude of a nation, to a nation.”
Next to the president, Miss Amelia Fowler, the great granddaughter of Comte de Grasse (whose fleet blockaded the Chesapeake Bay in 1781 to prevent the escape of British General Cornwallis from Yorktown, Virginia,) and the Marquis de Chambrun, a descendent of the Marquis de Lafayette, pulled a canvas from a granite monument. A bronze plaque, designed by Baltimore sculptor J. Maxwell Miller, read, “This monument is erected to the memory of French soldiers who gave their lives fighting for American independence.”
In a bit of irony, Thomas Fell, an Englishman, president of St. Johns College, accepted custody of the monument for those “who gallantly gave their lives … and whose bones are buried beneath this sod.”
How many Frenchmen are buried here is unknown. St. Johns was a campsite for soldiers under the command of Marquis de Lafayette and in September 1781, 3,000 French troops under Comte de Rochambeau marched into Annapolis on the way to Yorktown and the decisive battle that achieved American independence “that could not have been won without the help of the French.” It is estimated 2,112 Frenchmen lost their lives in America’s War for Independence.
So what brought about this auspicious occasion? Curiously, a new Naval Academy Chapel and a crypt for John Paul Jones were motivating factors. The body of Jones, father of the U.S. Navy, had laid in rest in Cherbourg, France, in a cemetery with other American war dead. He was to be moved back to the U.S. Professor Marion had been in France and was impressed by the care given by the French to the cemetery for American sailors killed in a sea fight on June 27, 1864, off the coast of Cherbourg. Marion felt it was time for a reciprocal act that would honor the French who had given their lives in the American Revolution.
The General Society of the Sons of the Revolution agreed. The cornerstone for the monument to the unknown French soldiers was laid on March 26, 1906. Five years later President Taft came to town to dedicate it.
The granite and bronze monument remains on St. Johns College Campus near the boathouse overlooking College Creek. Crowds do not flock there anymore. But every two years, or at least for the last 51 years, a wreath-laying ceremony pays tribute to the unknown soldiers and sailors of France who came to the aid of America and never returned home.
In the latest ceremony on Oct. 16, 2014, the ambassador representative for France, the superintendent of the Naval Academy, and Honor Guard of Midshipmen gathered at the monument to pay tribute to the memory of a cause for freedom that will live forever. Wreaths were laid by representatives of 26 organizations including the Embassy of France, the City of Annapolis, the Society of Cincinnati, the John Paul Jones chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Peggy Stewart Daughters of the American Revolution, The Alliance Francaise d’Annapolis and the USNA French Club.
After singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise,” taps, played by the Navy band ended the solemn ceremony commemorating in the words of Jean Jusserand, ambassador of France, April 10, 1911: “Our soldiers rest in hallowed ground in a friendly country … I beg to express the gratitude of France.”