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It was a perfect spring day, 60 degrees and dry. The gentle breeze snapped the colors to attention as strains of martial music carried over the city. Federal employees had the day off and swelled the enthusiastic crowd, which jostled for position beneath two massive American flags that obscured the object of everyone’s attention at the foot of Capitol Hill. April 27, 1922, the centennial of General and President Ulysses S. Grant’s birth, had the feel of an inauguration day. An imposing military parade of about 10,000 had marched down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to kick off the festivities. A highlight had been the steps of white-haired veterans in ill-fitting faded uniforms of blue and gray echoing off the pavement to the beat of snare drums. Slower afoot than in their days facing one another across American battlefields some 60 years earlier, now stooped and bent, the old men still carried themselves with pride.

The people had come to pay homage to a national hero, and to witness the unveiling of the last piece to one of the most discussed works of art in the nation’s history. If they happened to catch a glimpse of Vice President Calvin Coolidge and General John J. Pershing, so much the better. Nearly two miles to the west, at the opposite end of the National Mall, preparations to unveil another monument—this one to Abraham Lincoln— were nearing completion. That celebration was scheduled for less than a month from now. Today was for Grant.

Coolidge captured the mood of the moment, saying Grant “gave his service, made his sacrifice, endured his suffering for the welfare of humanity.” A man of few words, the vice president was nevertheless politically astute. He knew how to work a crowd. Evoking the memory of the man most revered by his audience, he rightfully joined Grant and Lincoln at the hip. Grant “lived the great realities of life,” he said. “As Lincoln could put truth into words, so Grant could put truth into action.”

Princess Cantacuzene, Grant’s granddaughter, then tugged the rope to open the flags that obscured the monument from view. The crowd gasped, struck by the majestic rider high above their heads. The U.S. Marine band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Battery D of the 3rd Field Artillery fired a 21-gun salvo. The people broke into loud applause and congratulated themselves on participating in the great event. But something was missing.

Tragically, the man most responsible for the monument was not in attendance. Having died two weeks earlier, sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady didn’t get to enjoy what certainly would have been the happiest day of his life, the day he fulfilled a dream and basked in the glory of his crowning achievement. His absence must have been palpable, and certainly caused many in the crowd more than a moment of sadness.

Shrady’s Grant Memorial was 20 years in the making. His design had bested 27 other entries in a 1902 design competition called by Congress after the Society of the Army of the Tennessee convinced it to erect a Washington, D.C., monument to its former commander. The selection committee included artistic giants of the day: architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim, and sculptors August SaintGaudens and Daniel Chester French, whose own tribute to Lincoln was still in the future. Gaudens’ popular monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry already held an honored spot on the Boston Commons.

At the time, Shrady was relatively unknown. Just 31, his résumé was scant; the only significant works to his credit were a series of large animal sculptures for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., and a bronze equestrian statue of George Washington for the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. Compared to his competition, Shrady had little to recommend him. His career as a sculptor was barely a half-decade old. Self-taught, he had taken up the art during a convalescence from typhoid fever.

The selection rankled some, and sparked an ugly protest by the man who came in second, Charles Niehaus—a known quantity. He already had three works gracing Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, including that of slain president James A. Garfield of Ohio. He would go on to sculpt five more favorite sons, making him the most prolific artist of state heroes in the series. Understandably, Niehaus wanted the prestigious commission badly—at $250,000 it was up to that time the largest assignment ever authorized by Congress. Niehaus claimed Shrady’s connections secured the appointment—his brother-in-law was the son of railroad magnate Jay Gould—and he forced a second vote but failed to overturn the original decision.

If the selection committee saw something in Shrady, it would have been understandable if the young artist felt apprehensive about the task ahead. The New York Times called the project the “most ambitious piece of architectural sculpture ever attempted” in the United States. And ambitious it certainly was. Shrady would need to devote the better part of the rest of his life to the project.

He delved into the venture with all his energy, going great lengths to attain authenticity. He joined the New York National Guard for a four-year stint to get firsthand experience with the workings of cannons, borrowed actual Civil War uniforms from the War Department, attended cavalry and artillery demonstrations at West Point and studied Grant’s life mask at the Smithsonian Institution. He also took advantage of a family connection with his subject: His father, Dr. George F. Shrady, had cared for Grant at Mount McGregor during his losing battle with throat cancer. Conversations with the elder Shrady and with the general’s son, Frederick Dent Grant, helped round out the sculptor’s research. Shrady also sought assistance from the New York Police Department, studying mounted officers to better understand the musculature of horses, and he drenched his own horse in water to better observe its structure and movement for realistic sketches.

The finished work is magnificent. Its attention to detail remains unmatched. Comprising three separate sculpture groups, it rests on a terraced platform, 252 feet across and 69 feet deep. The Vermont Marble Company furnished all the white stonework for the memorial.

Grant holds the center position. Atop a large granite pedestal, he sits astride his favorite horse, Cincinnati—five tons of spectacular bronze and the second largest equestrian statue in the world. At 35 feet tall, it is well above the statuary on each flank, one devoted to artillery and one to cavalry. Unlike those pieces, which are all chaotic movement intending to evoke the clamor, thrill, tumult and fear of battle, Grant appears calm and controlled. He wears his typical campaign slouch hat and Army coat. The attitude fits the man’s character. Writer Shelby Foote described Grant as having “four o’clock in the morning” courage. Awakened in the dead of night he could immediately assess the situation and know what to do without panicking. Like the Man in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” Grant kept his head when all about him were losing theirs.

Still, the positioning of the figure, so high above the viewer, makes it difficult to see its face. Grant remains an enigma— just as in life. He came out of nowhere, having failed as a peacetime soldier, farmer and clerk. Writer Bruce Catton described him as having “the eyes of a man who had come way up from way down.” He was the unlikeliest of heroes. But a hero he became, seizing the second chance that was the Civil War with a vengeance, eventually hammering Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia until it broke. It was this tenacious quality that one officer on Union General George G. Meade’s staff noticed when he said Grant looked like a man who “had made up his mind to drive his head through a stone wall.”

He didn’t look like a hero. Yet American poet laureate Robert Penn Warren understood how the man’s reputation inspired his men, some of whom this day of dedication would have looked upon the great statue with tears in their eyes. Penn Warren, in Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War, describes how his character viewed Grant’s arrival in the Wilderness of Virginia:

…a smallish, lumpish, bearded man between two gold-gleaming warriors, a man who, despite his limpishness, sat his mount well, a man with a hat pulled low on his brow, no insignia on his coat. The coat was unbuttoned and hung without tidiness. Adam realized that he had seen, under that unbuttoned coat, a gold sash bound over the incipient paunch of middle-age. He watched the horsemen dwindle into distance. Then he turned and walked toward the camp….Men said: “It won’t be long now.”

Grant’s one obvious talent was as a horseman, a skill he mastered better than any of his fellow cadets at West Point. Shrady was right to put him on a horse. Four recumbent lions guard the central sculpture, and two infantry panels in basrelief adorn opposite sides of the pedestal. A single word is carved into the stone— “Grant.”

Bronze sculptures on either side of Grant bring the viewer face to face with the reality of combat. Looking at the Cavalry group, placed at the north end of the memorial in 1916, one can’t help but feel the absolute terror inflicted on an enemy’s position. Grant knew how to use the tools of war. He brought his prodigy, Maj. Gen. “Little Phil” Sheridan, east with him in 1864 to mold his cavalry into an aggressive killing machine. Sheridan did not disappoint, helping to save the day at the Third Battle of Winchester and corralling Lee before Appomattox.

Lieutenant William H. Harrison, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, captured the action at Winchester in a telling letter:

At the sound of the bugle we took the trot, the gallop, and then the charge. As we neared their line we were welcomed by a fearful musketry fire, which temporarily confused the leading squadron, and caused the entire brigade to oblique slightly to the right. Instantly, officers cried out, “Forward! Forward!” The men raised their sabers, and responded to the command with deafening cheers. Within a hundred yards of the enemy’s line we struck a blind ditch, but crossed it without breaking our front. In a moment we were face to face with the enemy. They stood as if awed by the heroism of the brigade, and in an instant broke in complete rout, our men sabering them as they vainly sought safety in flight.

In Shrady’s cavalry charge, a seven-horseman color squad races pell-mell to the scene of action, looking like a whirling dervish. The lead officer leans back in the saddle, his sword held high, while the bugler expands his chest to blow the call to charge. One horse has stumbled on the rutted ground, strewn with the debris of battle. It has thrown its rider who is about to be trampled. The man behind pulls hard at the reins of his straining mount, hoping to avoid his fallen comrade.

The Artillery group sculpture, at the south end of the memorial, was first on the site, placed in 1912. Civil War artillery routinely inflicted a gruesome harvest. Confederate diarist John H. Worsham of the 21st Virginia Infantry recorded one harrowing incident:

As we returned a Yankee battery of eight guns had full play on us in the field, and our line became a little confused; we halted, every man instantly turned and faced the battery. As we did so, I heard a thud on my right, as if one had been struck with a heavy fist. Looking around I saw a man at my side standing erect, with his head off, a stream of blood spurting a foot or more from his neck. As I turned farther around, I saw three others lying on the ground, all killed by this cannon shot. The man standing was a captain in the 42nd Va. Regt., and his brains and blood bespattered the face and clothing of one of my company, who was standing in the rear. (This was the second time I saw four men killed by one shot. The other occurred in the battle of Cedar Run, a few weeks earlier. Each time the shot struck as it was descending—the first man had his head taken off, the next was shot through the breast, the next through the stomach, and the fourth had all his bowels torn out.)

In bronze, Shrady’s three-horse team, led by a rider waving a two-pointed guidon, pulls a caisson and Napoleon cannon. Three cannoneers sit precariously atop the caisson, fighting for balance and holding on for dear life as the unit bounces over the scarred terrain and the team tries to execute a sharp right wheel turn. The bridle bit strap has broken on one of the horses, portending a terrible crash ahead. Here is Shrady’s detail at its finest: the expressions on the men’s faces; the flared nostrils of the horses, one’s hanging tongue; the accouterments of the cannon: the swab, bucket and lanyard; a lost rifle on the rocky ground. A bronze plaque commemorates three West Point cadets who served as models for the intrepid soldiers. One contemporary viewer thought the Artillery group particularly moving: “I can guess the thoughts of each man and feel the pulse and throb of each horse. The story of the campaign as well as the action they portray is all there.”

Though Shrady, worn out from the monumental task and having succumbed to a long illness a few days earlier, did not live to see the dedication of his masterpiece, he was, in his own way, present at the ceremony. His thumbprints can be seen in one of the horses in the Cavalry group. And like French painter Paul Philippoteaux, who drew himself leaning against a tree in the Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, Shrady placed himself in his own Civil War monument; he modeled his own face for the fallen cavalryman.

Serving as a pallbearer at Shrady’s funeral was Daniel Chester French, one of the men who tapped Shrady for the work and who sculpted the sitting Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial down the long expanse of the National Mall. While the grander and beloved Lincoln Memorial was destined for a more prominent place in American hearts, its companion memorial to the Civil War era, the Grant Memorial, remains impressive and magnificent in its own right, a dramatic tribute to the Union’s greatest general and an outstanding achievement by the sculptor. A century and a half after the nation’s most cataclysmic event, Grant still symbolically guards the seat of government of the nation he fought to preserve.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.