Riding through Washington

Civil War generals still survey the battleground on horseback from our city squares and circles

Captured in bronze, forever surveying the field of action and gearing up for battle, the Civil War generals are with still us. They are, of course, all Union generals. The brilliant Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are not here because “to the victor goes the spoils”. Also, to the sculptor goes the spoils, since many of these projects were competitions with good pay for the winning artist.

One of the most dramatic statues is of Philip Sheridan, whose action pose dominates Sheridan Circle on Massachusetts Avenue. “Little Phil” as he was known to his troops was indeed short and had long arms, which prompted President Lincoln to remark that Sheridan’s arms were so long that if his ankles itched, he wouldn’t even have to bend down to scratch them. Cast in bronze by Gutzon Borglum in 1908, Sheridan sits astride his faithful horse, Rienzi, who took him through 85 battles, including the one portrayed here. Sheridan had left his men in the Shenandoah Valley to attend to matters in Winchester, when Early attacked and almost won the day. Sheridan rode hard for twenty miles to get to his troops, saying, “if I had been with you this morning, boys, this would not have happened.” In the statue, he is shown bending down and waving his hat at his men, urging them on in battle. His success in the Valley campaign, coupled with Sherman’s success in Georgia, is credited with turning the tide for the Union’s victory.

Another diminutive general, George McClellan, was the Commander of the Army of the Potomac from the beginning of the war in 1861 to November 1862. Many historians argue that he should have been removed a lot sooner, because of his recurrent reluctance to send his soldiers into battle. Lincoln said he had a case of “the slows,” but kept him on for almost two years, because he was a great strategist and an even better recruiter. The reluctant general, however, thought a lot of himself, as evidenced in his letters to his wife, where he frequently describes himself as the savior of the nation. This is also clear in his equestrian statue by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road, where McClellan sits squarely on his horse, chin up and right hand placed confidently on his hip.

At Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street, the tall majestic statue of General Winfield Scott Hancock pays tribute to his victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he continued to lead his men successfully against a gigantic Confederate assault, even after being shot off his horse. On Thomas Circle, the beautiful statue of General George H. Thomas shows him sitting at ease, pulling the reins with on hand, holding his horse’s head high and surveying the field of battle, probably also capturing him in one of his finest moments, at the Battle of Chickamauga.

The leader of the infamous march to the sea, William Tecumseh Sherman, is found on the elaborate monument at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fifteenth Street. The bold general has one hand on the reins and the other holding his field glasses. He has probably just looked toward his goal of reaching the sea, ready to destroy everything in his path if it would bring the Union victory. Dominating McPherson Square, and portrayed also with binoculars in hand and uniform scruffy from his and Sherman’s long march, is the statue of General James Birdseye McPherson. His statue was cast from Confederate cannons captured in Atlanta. At Logan Circle, the statue of John A. Logan sits on horseback with his sword in hand, commanding a view of the beautiful residential circle where he himself lived for so many years, and where he got the idea of preserving one day a year to honor the war dead, the special day we call Memorial Day.

Finally, there is the largest and most important Civil War monument of all on the east end of the Mall honoring Ulysses S. Grant, the general who was able to bring the Union to victory and the war to a close. In a greatcoat and broad brimmed hat that perpetually keeps his eyes in shadow, Grant sits calmly and impassively on his horse, Cincinnatus, among the two sets of massive statuary honoring the cavalry and artillery soldiers. This ambitious project was the work of a little-known sculptor, Henry M. Shrady. As James M. Goode says in his book, “Washington Sculpture”, in 1902, when Shrady won the competition over 23 other well-known artists for the $250,000 project, his competitors demanded an investigation. Nevertheless, he ended up with the job and devoted the next twenty years of his life to the creating the monument, which was brilliantly executed with exquisite and painstaking attention to detail. But, when the dedication of the monument took place in 1922, Shrady was not there to take a bow. He died two weeks earlier from the strain and exhaustion of having to complete a project of such astounding magnitude.

Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate firm in the Washington area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington history.

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Sat, 20 Dec 2014 10:07:01 -0500

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