U.S. Grant's Steely Bronze
With the Tumult of Battle on Either Flank, the General Keeps Grim Eyes Forward in His Magnificent Memorial

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 23, 2007

His pedestal of white marble is 22 feet high, and Cincinnati, his enormous war horse, stands in bronze on top of it, so that by the time you reach Ulysses S. Grant himself, the crown of his slouch hat is 43 feet up in the air.

His equestrian statue at his Washington memorial is very big, but maybe not big enough.

Behind him the white dome of the Capitol gobbles the sky, and that dwarfs him. Before him the long Mall stretches far away, and that dwarfs him, too.

He was twice elected president, a million of his countrymen gathered for his funeral in 1885, and he wrote a great American book. But the little man up there on his stallion isn't politicking or writing, he's slaughtering relentlessly, overseeing war.

At Shiloh and Vicksburg and in the wilderness, he watched thousands of good men die. You can imagine what he's watching, the carnage, the cannons, the bravery, the waste, but you don't have to imagine. In two amazing sculpture groups to the general's left and right, onrushing Union soldiers, desperate and doomed, are fighting the Civil War.

The slaves were freed, the Union saved, and then after a while came permanent, triumphalist bronze and marble monuments erected to the victors. They're all over the Northern states. Washington is filled with them. The Grant is the third best in the city. Many Washingtonians don't even know it's there. Or who put it there.

The sculptor, Henry Merwin Shrady (1871-1922), a businessman with a law degree, was scarcely known when he won the big commission 105 years ago, and is scarcely known today. In terms of monuments he didn't do much else.

Shrady worked for 20 years on the memorial's three great bronzes, gave them all he had, and it killed him.

Their setting isn't great. The approaches are awkward, and the pool in front of the statue is too big, and the lawns around it are a mess. The Grant Memorial's plaza is a broad Beaux-Arts extravagance whose Latinate allusions and marble moldings and bronze lions have been designed to link the high splendor of America to that of Rome.

The grand thing about Shrady's three grand sculptures -- the artillery to the right, the cavalry to the left, the general between them -- is that they don't only lead you back to classical antiquity, they also take you to the movies.

His sculptures, like the movies, offer horses at full gallop, drama, ceaseless action, bugle calls, grunts and screams. Shrady has set his art on an old aesthetic line that runs through the white horses on the Parthenon, and through the bronze ones at San Marco's, and then veers off toward John Wayne.

Grant isn't hard to find. If you sit on Abraham Lincoln's lap in the Lincoln Memorial, and look out straight ahead, between the Doric columns, along the long Reflecting Pool and past the Washington Monument, you'll be looking into his grim implacable eyes.

The general was 13 years younger than Lincoln, and much shorter, but they were linked. Both had come from the West. Both had known what it was like to be short of cash. The general didn't come from a log cabin. His birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio, had been covered in planks, but it had only two rooms, and they were rough.

In 1858, three years before Fort Sumter, you might have found the Union's future general in chief shivering in the slush on a corner in St. Louis peddling firewood to passersby. He'd split the logs himself.

He dressed shabbily. He didn't put on airs. He stank of cigar smoke. One wartime comrade called him "plain as an old shoe." Grant wasn't your usual general. He didn't strut, he shambled, and he didn't march in time. (He was tone-deaf and didn't know marching music, and knew only two tunes, he said: "One was 'Yankee Doodle.' The other wasn't.")

Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy's commander, was a slave-owning patrician who spoke in terms of chivalry. He indulged in courtly graces and wore silk sashes with tassels. Grant was Eisenhower to Lee's MacArthur. He used plainness as a weapon.

At Appomattox, Lee wore a burnished sword and embroidered gauntlets. Beside that splendid presence, Grant, thought Col. Amos Webster, "looked like a fly on a shoulder of beef." He hadn't changed for days. Grant was wearing "a government-issue flannel shirt with trousers tucked into muddy boots, no side arms, not even spurs." His clothes were plain. So were his terms. He demanded unconditional surrender, and that's what he got.

Grant came straight at you. He didn't much care for occupying rail junctions, ports or fortified redoubts. He went out and killed armies.

"The art of war is simple enough," he wrote. "Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can; and keep moving on."

You sense him in his statue. Shrady's Grant -- like Daniel Chester French's marble Lincoln at the far end of the Mall -- feels uncannily inhabited. It's got someone in it. His ruthlessness is palpable. He is the last enemy you'd ever want to see.

Cincinnati, his huge charger, stood 17 1/2 hands high. He was fast, too -- Cincinnati got his speed from his sire, Lexington, who'd been the fastest four-miler in the country (7.195 minutes). "Grant," writes Jean Edward Smith, his distinguished biographer, "rarely permitted anyone to ride the horse, the exception being Lincoln, whom Grant considered an excellent horseman, and who rode Cincinnati whenever he visited the front."

The horse on the Mall is listening, ears pricked, nostrils flared. His bronze is a portrait, too.

Grant was a kind of a horse whisperer. "If I can mount a horse," he said, "I can ride him."

In 1843, at West Point, astride York, an intractable chestnut-sorrel animal, Grant set a high jump record that lasted 25 years.

* * *

Avoid sunshine. Shrady's art is seen best in dismal weather, with squishing mud, cold rain and ghost-moans in the wind.

Rain drips from his hat. In just three weeks in Virginia the army he commanded suffered 44,000 casualties. His eyes are on the battle. You can imagine what he sees.

But you don't have to imagine. You can see it. The mounted general is still. All else is action. There are a dozen other horses, and 11 other soldiers, in Shrady's Grant Memorial, and not one is at rest.

The metal swoops and swirls. The horses neigh and stumble. Their tongues loll from their mouths. The soldiers shout and clench their jaws. Their whipping cloaks, their boot buckles, the howitzer they're hauling -- its axle tree, its muzzle sight, the bridles and the reins, every detail is right.

The highly mobile horse artillery that Grant deployed in war galloped into battle in front of the infantry to blow gaps in the line with canister and grapeshot. Shrady often went to West Point to watch the horse artillery practicing at speed. His sculpture isn't invention, it's reporting. It isn't just art, it's war.

In Shrady's other sculpture group the cavalry is charging. The leader of the squad, flags swirling all about him, his sword raised in the air, has just barked a command.

One man is dying. His horse has just fallen, pinning its rider, squashing the poor trooper into the muddy ground. In an instant he'll be trampled. His comrades charge unheedingly. Only one has noticed. With a big dramatic gesture -- just like those in silent movies -- he throws his arm before his eyes to hide the horrid sight.

This is just about as vivid, and just about as violent, as memorial sculpture gets.

* * *

Grant had few connections to the gilded Eastern worlds of intellect and power. Shrady had many.

His father, a doctor, had been one of Grant's physicians. His brother-in-law, a millionaire, was the son of rich Jay Gould. An ancestor founded what later would become Columbia University, where Shrady earned his law degree. Shrady was wired. So is his art.

In it the young artist acknowledges three of the most prominent sculptors of his time.

The first is Frederic Remington (1861-1909), whose bronzes for the tabletop did so much to shape our views of cowboys and the West.

In his "Coming Through the Rye," a statuette of 1902, four cowpokes on a tear gallop side by side shooting six-guns in the air. Of the sculpture's 16 hooves just five touch the ground.

Remington could model moving horses as well as anyone. But he couldn't cast them. That work he entrusted to Ricardo Bertelli, the president of the Roman Bronze Works of New York. Shrady employed the same founder. Remington called him "O man of metal." Shrady asked him to stand as his daughter's godfather.

The second and third American masters sensed in Shrady's monument are Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) and Daniel Chester French (1850-1931).

The best of all of Washington's Civil War memorials is certainly French's Lincoln. A plaster of the second best -- Saint-Gaudens's Shaw Memorial -- is in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.

In 1897, when the great Shaw Memorial bronze was dedicated in Boston, Shrady, as a member of New York's 7th Regiment, was one of the soldiers who marched in the parade.

Shrady had learned from both older sculptors, and it shows.

His Grant owes much to the French's Grant in Philadelphia, and his Grant Memorial bas-reliefs (he didn't live to finish them) obviously pay homage to Saint-Gaudens's marching troops.

The two men noticed. Without their warm approval, and their official votes, Shrady would never have got the job.

He got it in competition. Twenty-three schemes were submitted to the jury. Architect Daniel H. Burnham (the designer most responsible for both the 1893 Chicago world's fair and the layout of the Mall) and sculptors Saint-Gaudens and French were three of the key jurors who saw that Shrady won.

The work drained him. The money appropriated, $250,000, had not been enough. Shrady sickened. He had "abscesses in both ears." He dismissed his servants, took his three boys out of school and turned to paper napkins where once he had used cloth.

The Grant Memorial was dedicated at last -- a month before the Lincoln -- on April 27, 1922.

Shrady wasn't there. He'd died two weeks before.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company