RECENT MONTHS have certainly been a season of celebration for Abraham Lincoln — an Oscar-nominated film, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Obama’s second oath of office sworn on the 16th president’s Bible. And deservedly so. We’d just like to interrupt it, briefly, for a few words about the man who made the Union’s military triumph in the Civil War possible, a triumph that secured Lincoln’s place in history.
Like Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant came from humble origins; like Lincoln, he had an abiding faith in the Union and a hatred of slavery. The battlefield victories he engineered, most spectacularly at Vicksburg, Miss., in July 1863, earned Lincoln’s confidence and vaulted Grant to the head of a military that might not have defeated the Confederacy under a different leader. “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” Lincoln said.
Elected president in 1868, Grant served two terms and pursued the most aggressive civil rights program of any post-Civil War president until Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Among the fruits of his efforts were the 15th Amendment, ending racial discrimination in voting, and a campaign to crush Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the South.
A grateful nation erected monuments: an immense mausoleum in New York and, in 1922, the Grant Memorial at the western base of Capitol Hill, facing the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the Mall. The remarkable bronze statuary by Henry Merwin Shrady includes a serene Gen. Grant mounted on his horse, Cincinnati, flanked by dramatic sculptures of Civil War soldiers in combat. It has been justly described as the most artistically accomplished of all the District’s monuments. Nearly 40 feet in height, the equestrian statue is one the largest in the world.
Alas, this magnificent but oft-overlooked landmark has fallen into disrepair. Last year, a government-commissioned assessment found missing marble balustrades, crumbling marble surfaces, cracks in pedestals and ugly bluish stains spread by water running off corroded bronze. Actually, these problems have been evident for years, but apparently there has never been sufficient money or interest to address them. We should all feel a bit embarrassed at this affront to a great man’s legacy
More than $500,000 worth of repairs has been made since last January, when Congress transferred care and maintenance of the Grant Memorial from the National Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC). (The transfer itself, however, was unrelated to the memorial’s condition.) But restoring the Grant Memorial according to the AOC’s standards for preservation will cost millions of dollars — the first $7 million of which the AOC sought in its fiscal 2013 budget request.
That’s not small change. But even in fiscally trying times, Congress can and should supply the necessary funds. A hero in war and peace, Ulysses S. Grant was among the most impressive of Americans. He deserves a memorial to match.