As a prologue, I should state that if in the following narrative you notice discrepancies in the spelling of the family name, it is because there is a lack of agreement on one correct way to spell it, even within the family. For purposes of the traffic circle, the park, and the surrounding neighborhood, the city spells is Dupont. Samuel himself used Du Pont. And various family members go by Du Pont, du Pont, or duPont. They all, however, refer to the same family. With that out of the way, let’s move on to the memorial fountain.
In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a traffic circle, then named Pacific Circle, as called for in architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for the national capitol city. It was constructed in northwest D.C. at the confluence of five streets – Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire Avenues, and P and 19th Streets (MAP). Its name was changed to Dupont Circle approximately a decade later, when Congress renamed the circle and authorized the placement of a statue there in order to memorialize Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, in recognition of his military service.
A statue of Samuel Du Pont was sculpted by Launt Thompson, and subsequently erected in the traffic circle in 1884. The interior of the circle was also turned into a park, and landscaped with flowers and ornamental trees. However, a number of members of the prominent Du Pont family thought that the statue was an insufficient tribute to their ancestor, and obtained permission to replace it with what they thought would be a more fitting memorial. This is thought to be the only instance in which a group managed to remove a statue from a location in D.C. and replace it with their version of a more proper monument. The original statue was subsequently removed, and later erected in Rockford Park in Wilmington, Delaware, where it remains today.
The Du Pont family commissioned Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French, the architect and sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, to create a memorial to more fittingly capture the significance and stature of Samuel Du Pont. The resulting memorial was a double-tiered white marble fountain, which features carvings on the fountain’s shaft of three allegorical nude figures symbolizing the arts of ocean navigation: the sea; the stars, and; the wind. The marble carving was executed by the renowned Piccirilli Brothers, who also sculpted the colossal Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial, worked on the National Archives Building in D.C., and fashioned the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Formally entitled The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain, the fountain includes an inscription which reads, “Samuel Francis Dupont – Rear Admiral, United States Navy, 1803-1865, This Memorial Fountain Replaces a Statue Erected by the Congress of the United States in Recognition of His Distinguished Services.” It is owned by the National Park Service, and is a contributing monument to a group of statues entitled, “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.
The man memorialized by the fountain, Samuel Du Pont, began his long and illustrious naval career at an early age through his family’s close connections with President Thomas Jefferson, who helped secure him an appointment as a midshipman by President James Madison at the age of 12. Ironically, by the time he became an officer he had begun to openly criticize many of his senior officers because he believed they had only received their commands through political influence and were incompetent.
Despite going on to eventually be in charge of the largest fleet ever commanded by an American officer at that time, the theme of political connections would continue to recur throughout his career. As an enthusiastic supporter of naval reform, he oversaw the removal of over 200 naval officers. But when those under fire called upon friends in Congress, Du Pont himself became the subject of heavy criticism, and a subsequent review of the dismissals resulted in the reinstatement of nearly half of those removed. And near the end of his career, when he was removed from command as a result of being blamed for a significant defeat during the Civil War, Du Pont attempted to enlist the help of Congressman Henry Winter Davis, as well as garner the support of President Abraham Lincoln, in persuading the Navy to adopt his official report of the incident that led to his removal. The Navy did not.
Despite intended as a memorial to his otherwise long and distinguished naval career, I find it also appropriate that the fountain that memorializes a military man so intrinsically involved in the political realm and patronage throughout his career is located in the city that is our nation’s hub for political influence.