[Photo: Jim Barclay. Commissioned and owned by David Kramer]
Tuesday the 26th marks the 80th anniversary of the erection of the four ton Spanish-American War Eagle, now located on the Court Street side of the War Memorial along the Genesee River. Originally, the monument was held in Franklin Square before the construction of the Inner Loop necessitated its moving in 1960.
Apparently, some did not appreciate the Art Deco design of the statue. Newspaper accounts sometimes referred to the Eagle as an “ugly duckling.” Nonetheless, until around 1970, the statue was a popular site for Democrat and Chronicle photographers, who especially liked picturing the Eagle covered in snow.
I first became interested in the Eagle around around 2000 when my friend Lynda Howland photographed me in her grandfather’s vintage Spanish-American War uniform.In The 118th Otis Day, June 15th, and the War Memorial Eagle, (2018) I wrote:
As time passes, I grow increasingly skeptical about the appropriateness of the War Memorial Eagle designed as a tribute to those who fought in America’s three foreign wars from 1898 – 1902, named as the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the China Relief Expedition.
The history of the Eagle dates back to 1933 when, according the Memorial Art Gallery website, a committee was formed to chose a sculptor and design:
C. Paul Jennewein, Robert Laurent, Lee Lawrie, Heinz Warneke, and William Zorach were invited to submit proposals for the sculpture in Franklin Square. Maquettes were on view in the Gallery while the committee made its decision. Carl Paul Jennewein’s sculpted eagle was selected.
The bronze eagle is depicted sitting on the prow of the USS Maine, holding a broken chain symbolizing the end of Spain’s 33-year domination of Cuba.
In 1941, Jennewein’s Art Deco bronze rendering of the eagle was completed, one suggesting America’s “sundering the chain of oppression.”
But historical ironies abound. From 1939 – 1941, it was clear America would likely take up arms against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. As such, a monument representing America’s sundering the chain of oppression made sense.
But to convey the oppression sundering imagery, the committee chose America’s most ignoble and blatantly imperialistic overseas adventures. The Spanish-American War may have begun as a humanitarian gesture, but quickly became an opportunity for the United States to dominate Cuba and claim Puerto Rico as essentially a colony.
Furthermore, the sculpture refers to the Filipino-American War as the “Philippine Insurrection” when it was obvious — even in its day — that America was attempting to prevent Filipino independence and to establish the Philippines as an overseas colony, which we did. In 1941, when the Eagle was erected the Philippines was still an American colony.
And, the sculpture refers to the “China Relief Expedition” in what was really the United States’ intervention in the Boxer War with the intent of projecting American power in Asia.¹
In addition, today — if not in its day — the iconography on the plaque at the top of the sculpture is dubious: the image is of a supine Cuban or Filipino girl with her back to viewer as she kneels next to two American soldiers with her arms reaching out to both men in a gesture of subservient gratitude.
The sculpture does not rise to the level of a monument to Confederate generals but is a far cry from what I’d like as a representation of America spreading freedom.
In June 2020, I submitted this (unpublished) letter to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:
Recently, renewed attention, and some removal, has been given to Confederate monuments. By now, most realize the monuments, usually erected in the post-reconstruction South, are emblems of white supremacy and honor a regime that fought to the death to preserve slavery. Rochester, of course, has no such monuments. Instead, we proudly celebrate Union victory – with the Great Emancipator sitting atop — at the Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument in Washington Square Park.
Nonetheless, another downtown monument, the War Memorial Eagle in War Memorial Plaza, should give us pause.
Designed by renowned architect Carl Paul Jennewein and erected in 1941 under the auspices of the United Spanish-War Veterans, the Art Deco bronze rendering of an eagle suggests America’s “sundering the chain of oppression” that once bound Spain to Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The pedestal on which the eagle stands – holding a broken chain in its talon — is inscribed: “The City of Rochester and The County of Monroe in honor of those who served their country in the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection China Relief Expedition 1898-1902.” On one plaque is an image of a supine Cuban or Filipino girl, her back to the viewer as she kneels next to two American soldiers, her arms reaching out to both men in a gesture of subservient gratitude.
But what exactly is the city of Rochester and Monroe County so proudly honoring?
The Spanish-American War may have begun as a humanitarian gesture, but quickly became an opportunity for the United States to dominate Cuba, culminating in the 1902 Platt Amendment denying Cuban sovereignty and then in a re-occupation in 1906. Overwhelming, American racist rhetoric represented Cuba’s black and brown peoples as incapable of self-rule; they were the supposed “white man’s burden.” White supremacists feared Cuba becoming another black Republic like Haiti.
The sculpture refers to the Filipino-American War as the “Philippine Insurrection” when it was obvious — even in its day — that America was attempting to prevent Filipino independence (delayed until 1946) and to establish the Philippines as an overseas colony. Typical of the racist rhetoric of his day, Theodore Roosevelt believed a sovereign Philippines would impede the United States’ manifest destiny, comparing the Filipinos to native Americans: “Every argument that can be made for the Filipinos [who wanted sovereignty over their land] could be made for the Apaches. And every word that can be said for Aguinaldo [the Filipino leader] could be said for Sitting Bull.”
Roosevelt got his way. In what some call genocide, the Filipino-American War resulted in the deaths of a minimum of 200,000 and a maximum of 1 million Filipino civilians, mostly due to famine and disease. In 1941, when the Eagle was erected the Philippines was still an American colony.
I do not expect the War Memorial Eagle to be moved to a museum. (Although, some want the bust of Christopher Columbus in the Hall of Justice removed.) But an explanatory text/plaque on its racist and imperialist legacy next to the monument is fitting.
I stand by the letter.
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¹ One Rochesterian, David J Kaufman, saw action in the China Relief Expedition and later became active as a Jewish War Veteran. The David J Kaufman Post #41 Jewish War Veterans is named in his memory. The flagpole at the Brighton Veterans Memorial in Buckland Park was donated by Post #41.SEE ALSO