General Ulysses S. Grant is an American hero. He commanded the Union forces during the Civil War and is today lauded as a military genius. What's more, he served two terms as President of the United States - that’s quite a resume. (Yes, yes, he made some mistakes during his time in office, but show me a president who hasn’t.)
Grant died in 1885 and was buried in his tomb (the aptly named Grant’s Tomb) on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive. It's big.
Thomson, Edgar S. "Grant's Tomb." 1895. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.
Brooklyn didn't have a body to bury, so we made one out of bronze and stuck it on the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch across from Lincoln in 1895.
Memorial Arch. 1909. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.
- Grant and Lincoln are on the walls of the inner arch -
The following year Brooklyn went one step further -- you can never have too many memorials. The Union League commissioned sculptor William Ordway Partridge to create a large bronze statue of General Grant riding quite the formidable stallion. The statue was placed at the corner of Bedford and Dean Streets in a square that was from then on named Grant Square.
Thomson, Edgar S. "Dedication of Grant Monument." 1896. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.
Grant Square was the perfect place for a fancy monument. The roads were wide and full of carriages carrying the wealthy residents of the up-and-coming neighborhood of Crown Heights. Grant Square was also the site of many a parade and celebration and Mr. Grant, surveying the area, added an extra dollop of patriotism to each and every one.
And then came the automobile. Honk honk! Achooga achooga!
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1921.
As the streets began to fill with cars speeding past (well, speeding in early-twentieth-century terms) the statue began to acquire a layer of dust and grease. A general rumbling of discontent came from those who maintained Grant's Tomb, the Grant Monument Association.
"General Grant is dirty," they cried.
"General Grant is ignored," they moaned.
"General Grant should be moved to a place where he can be both clean and seen!" they demanded.
The committee claimed that the evolving traffic patterns could result in Grant being taken down and removed anyway, therefore it was in the statue’s best interest to be moved to Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive. In 1929 they began a capital campaign to raise $400,000 for that exact purpose.
And then came the Great Depression. The plan was scrapped. Grant and his horse stayed at the corner of Bedford and Dean uncontested until 1937, when the Grant Monument Association again attempted to relocate the statue to Manhattan.
The proposed move hit a nerve with some Brooklynites. Members of the Brooklyn Council of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States were vehemently opposed, including Robert G. Summers. Mr. Summers had a special place in his heart for General Grant, as any 98-year old Civil War veteran inevitably would.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Oct 1938.
A Brooklynite was quoted in the Eagle: "There are too few statues in Brooklyn now to allow another to be taken away from us. It seems that every time someone wants to have a statue in Manhattan they run over to Brooklyn to find one that will serve the purpose. This statue was erected by the Union League Club of Brooklyn and it is fitting that it remain here."
Even with some very powerful ex-officio members (Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Mayor LaGuardia, to name two), the group only garnered $90,000 through fundraising and asset liquidation. All of the money went to the restoration of the tomb with none left over to relocate Mr. Grant.
When the ’37/'38 proposal failed, the Grant Monument Association regrouped and recruited more allies. In 1941, with the backing of the Arts Commission, they lobbied once again to move the statue to Grant’s Tomb. Herbert Livingston Satterlee, head of the Association, stated that he had the money to move Grant, just not the support from the community. Mr. Satterlee was a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the son-in-law of one J.P. Morgan. He hosted town meeting after town meeting and at town meeting after town meeting, Brooklyn was not having it.
Eventually, Moses suggested that they just pull the plug to prevent "a petty local squabble." (Funny, Moses was usually the petty one starting all the squabbles.)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 10 June 1941.
"I said then and repeat now that nothing could be more unfortunate from the point of view of the memory of General Grant and the good opinion of the rest of the country than to have a petty squabble over the gift of this statue by the people of Brooklyn to Grant's Tomb to complete this national monument," stated Moses.
The squabble continued anyway.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 15 July 1947.
In 1943, Satterlee and the Arts Commission lobbied one last time.
Satterlee said that the statue was neglected, dirty, greasy, and often vandalized (with chalk). Discussion of the traffic pattern came up again, with references to Brooklyn’s future and possible infrastructural changes (*ahem* Robert Moses *ahem*).
And then it got personal. Satterlee and the Arts Commission argued that Crown Heights’ population was shifting from one comprised of wealthy whites. Immigrants and African-Americans from the South had begun to move in and the cry from the upper crust was that it was disrespectful to keep Grant in a “slum.” Oof.
The debate came to a head in the fall of 1943, when Brooklynites from all walks of life weighed in. A contingent of residents wanted the statue to remain in the borough but be moved to Grand Army Plaza. “If we have not the gumption to move it there we deserve to lose it,” one man stated.
The Eagle floated the idea that Grant should replace General Slocum on the Plaza. They even photoshoped (1940s photoshop = scissors and whiteout) Grant’s statue into Slocum’s place.
"How Do You Like It?" Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1934. Print.
Poor Henry Slocum. First, he was given the nickname of "Slow Come" since he took so long to get to Gettysburg, then his name became synonymous with a horrible tragedy, and then they try to replace him. Can’t a guy catch a break?
"Slocum Statue." 1905. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.
Today, Slocum still sits to the right of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. He is often overlooked because his hill could use some serious pruning.
Rev. Stanley T. Olsen spoke on behalf of the Swedish Hospital, located at Bedford and Dean Street. He rejected that the statue “ought to be removed from a slum area . . . It has always been the policy of American cities to diffuse beauty, not concentrate it,” he asserted. Furthermore, he went on, the patients found the statue calming.
(Someone apparently retorted that you could only see the statue from a small fraction of the hundreds of windows on the hospital. I don’t know. Google Maps tells a different story.)
Google Maps. 22 July 2015. Web.
- The hospital was the white building with the rounded corner -
The Eagle took a straw poll of Brooklynites, some from the neighborhood and some from elsewhere in the borough, asking them to weigh in on the issue. A few folks didn’t know the statue existed (which isn’t all that surprising – I walk past things every day that I didn’t know existed), but in the end support for keeping the statue in its current place was 3 to 1.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5 Nov 1943.
One woman smartly asked if they’d have to rename Grant Square if Grant left. (Three cheers for logic.) That would have been a nightmare for businesses, as many claimed that they used the statue as a marker to help customers find their shops.
The town hall in which a final decision was to be made was held on November 4th, 1943. Robert Moses sent an intermediary to speak on behalf of the Parks Commission. In his professional opinion, he felt the statue should stay in Brooklyn but be moved to Grand Army Plaza across from Slocum. (Slocum breathed a sigh of relief.)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5 Nov 1943.
The next morning the Eagle reported: “The sturdy bronze horse upon which General Grant rides serenely on Bedford Ave. seemed to hold its head a little higher as its heroic flanks glinted in the morning sun today. A meeting of Brooklynites held in the best traditions of the American town hall had set at rest any idea of leading him across the river.” Manhattan was out and, even if Grand Army Plaza was to be Grant’s future home, the move was postponed until the war’s end.
Though the matter of Grant’s home was temporarily settled, the debate over it only further exacerbated the rivalry between Manhattan and Brooklyn. An editorial in the Eagle accused Manhattan of trying to steal the statue: “Our piratical neighbor across the River [attempted to] rob us of the Grant statue,” it read.
Another reader retorted a few days later saying that the whole town meeting was just another place for Brooklynites to show their animosity for Manhattan: “They’d rather see the statue thrown into the river than moved across it.”
One reported claimed that the statue had morphed into “a symbol of the spirit of Old Brooklyn struggling to reassert itself against the domination of Manhattan.”
After years of hooplah, Grant was left alone. Traffic continued in its original pattern. Hospital patients kept their cheerful reminder of the bloodiest war in American history. The seasons passed by.
"Snapshot of Equestrian Statue of Ulysses S. Grant." 1966. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.
In the end, Grant still stands at the corner of Bedford and Dean Streets and most likely always will. Next time you drive past, slow down a bit (not too much, someone will honk) and give him a little wave. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.