Unlike the overweight, overdressed generals astride horses in many of Washington's traffic circles, Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan, mounted on his black charger Rienzi in Sheridan Circle NW, is a statue to reckon with. Hard-muscled and triumphant, it's the kind of statue that might make pigeons think twice before landing.
Few bronze statues in the city have as much energy and few tell as vivid a tale of a single moment in a hero's life.
The National Park Service has just finished blasting 81 years worth of grime from the image at Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd Street NW by spraying it with about 40 pounds of ground walnut shells -- the latest innovation in statue cleansing.
The result: a green statue returned to its original dark brown, as fresh as the day it was installed and pronounced "first rate" by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Created by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, it tells the story of Sheridan's 20-mile ride in 1864 from Winchester, Va., to the front lines, where he persuaded his Union soldiers to stop their retreat.
Borglum depicts Rienzi as much a hero as Sheridan. The horse is larger in proportion to Sheridan than it should be, its head pulled into its massive chest, its back legs skidding underneath.
Sheridan, thrusting out his right arm and clutching his hat, is struggling to restrain Rienzi as he waves to his troops. It's hard to believe that this mighty warrior stood just 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds.
Bullies ridiculed him when he was a boy, so the stories go. President Lincoln once described him as "one of those long-armed fellows with short legs who can scratch his shins without having to stoop over to do it."
But this tough, wiry man with a bump on the back of his head had a magnetic influence, according to accounts by some who served under him.
After meeting Sheridan for the first time, Capt. Henry A. DuBois said he felt as though he were a longtime friend. "I thought this very strange -- this love at first sight, and without apparent reason," Dubois wrote in a letter in 1888.
Sheridan knew he had this effect, but he didn't know why. Some attributed it to his raw, physical courage. Rather than send his troops written attack orders, he often shared the dangers of battle with them.
On Oct. 18, 1864, he was in Winchester, returning from a Washington meeting, when he heard the unexpected rumble of artillery fire from the front 20 miles away.
A few miles outside Winchester, Sheridan saw the "appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army," broken and in full retreat. First he dismounted and walked a bit, mulling over his options. Then he climbed back on Rienzi and galloped ahead of the men.
"Turn, boys, turn, we're going back," Sheridan shouted. "Come on back, boys. Give them hell!"
With that, Sheridan jumped Rienzi over a barricade and rode to the crest of a hill so as many troops as possible could see him. He waved his small, round hat. The men rose to their feet and cheered.
It worked. The army stopped its retreat and launched a successful counterattack, pushing the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley forever.
When poet Thomas Buchanan Read heard the news, he quickly dashed off a poem that was read in schoolhouses and public gatherings throughout the North. Like Borglum's statue, "Sheridan's Ride" portrays Rienzi as a costar in the epic.
With foam and dust the black charger was gray
By the flash of his eye, and the red nostril's play
He seem'd to the whole great army to say,
I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down, to save the day."
The victory gave the whole North a lift and helped Lincoln win reelection that November.
Lincoln, who had once said Sheridan was too short to be a general, now recanted: "5 feet, 5 inches was just about the right height."
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky
Be it be said, in letters both bold and bright:
"Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into flight,
From Winchester -- 20 miles away!"