Today controversial statues of Confederate generals are coming down across the country. But in Washington, the equestrian statue of Union Gen. Winfield Scott stirred controversy as soon as it was installed in 1874.
One reason was a sex change. Not Scott’s, but the horse he was riding. Instead of a horse of a different color, he was astride a horse of a different gender.
Scott was a war hero who served 47 years as an Army general from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War (1846-48) to the start of the Civil War in 1861. He oversaw the notorious removal of Cherokee Indians along the deadly Trail of Tears, and in 1852, he unsuccessfully ran for president as a Whig Party candidate.
The general was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” because of his dedication to discipline and pomp. After Scott died in 1866 at age 79, Congress appropriated $35,000 to erect a statue of him with his horse in the nation’s capital, commissioning sculptor Henry Kirke Brown. Brown was known for his equestrian statue of George Washington in New York City.
Brown began work on Scott’s statue in Philadelphia, using bronze from cannons the general had seized in the Mexican-American War. Scott often rode a mare into battle, so Brown, known for his artistic realism, placed the general atop a small female horse. That didn’t sit well with Scott’s relatives, who wanted the general portrayed on a heroic-looking charger. So they pleaded with Brown to add some “stallion attributes” to the steed.
Brown grumbled but reluctantly complied. Sort of. He added a small male sexual “appendage” to the small female horse. Suddenly, she became a he.
The statue was unveiled in January 1874 in Scott Circle, not far from the White House, with members of the Association of Veterans of the Mexican War in attendance. The statue stands 15 feet high and is mounted on a 14-foot-high granite pedestal. The pedestal, which cost $42,000, included the largest single pieces of granite ever mined from a quarry up to that time.
The Scott statue quickly drew ridicule — and not only because of the sex change, which, as one newspaper noted, resulted in a horse “that veterinary surgeons will tell you is modeled on the wrong plan.” The sculptor also portrayed the 6-foot-5-inch Scott as an older man, when he weighed 300 pounds and could no longer ride a horse.
One observer noted that Scott looked “too old, too fat, too stiff, too short-legged.”
Such a huge figure atop such a small horse looked disproportionate. As one critic discreetly put it: “The general aesthetic effect is vitiated by the excessive faithfulness to the corpulency of the rider.” Another was more blunt: Scott looks “like an old sack of flour.”
One critic was fellow Union Gen. Philip Sheridan. Once, as Sheridan rode through Scott Circle in a carriage with retired Gen. John M. Wilson, Sheridan told his colleague: “I request here and now that you see to it that I am not seated upon such an outrageous horse as that upon which the sculptor has placed Scott.”
(He got his wish. After Sheridan died in 1888, he was honored with an equestrian statue at Sheridan Circle, just down the street from Scott Circle. Sheridan is shown riding his favorite stallion, Rienzi, the black charger immortalized in the famous Civil War poem “Sheridan’s Ride.”)
The Scott monument wasn’t the first equestrian statue in Washington to come under fire. The 1853 statue of Gen. Andrew Jackson seated on a rearing horse in Lafayette Square across from the White House also drew snickers.
Nearly 100 years later, President Harry S. Truman was still giving it hell. “Andrew Jackson on a horse in Lafayette Square is a ridiculous statue on an impossible horse,” Truman wrote in his memoirs. “Every time I looked out the windows in the White House and saw it over there, it made me angry.”
In fairness to Brown, his Scott statue was praised by some people. “Criticism agrees that Brown has given us the most perfect horse yet achieved by American art,” the Washington Evening Star said.
The Chicago Tribune said the statue “is notable for its superb modeling, pose and alert expression of the horse.”
As the decades passed, ridicule rode higher in the saddle. A 1925 article on the capital’s equestrian statues noted: “The poorest plug in Washington is the one that General Winfield Scott bestrides at the center of Scott Circle. Yet it is a perfectly natural old Dobbin, suffering slightly from ringbone lameness and not daring to travel faster than a walk.”
In her book “Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington D.C.,” Kathryn Allamong Jacob rates the Scott statue as the worst of the lot. The statue is often charitably described as the “oddest” of Washington’s many statues. However, Brown redeemed himself in 1877 with a widely praised equestrian statue of Revolutionary War Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, located in Stanton Park on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, Gen. Winfield Scott still rides high above Scott Circle as many statues of his Confederate counterparts are being pulled down. But a historic time bomb may be ticking under the portly old soldier. According to a 1907 newspaper report, few knew Scott’s horse was modeled after the favorite mare ridden by Kentucky’s Gen. John Morgan, a Confederate cavalryman.
So if current trends continue, Scott’s statue can stay, but his horse might have to come down.
Read more Retropolis: