The Battle for Grant’s Tomb


When Groucho Marx asked, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” on “You Bet Your Life,” he was offering unsuccessful competitors, battered by his heckling and bewildered by the game, a chance for redemption and some easy money. In return for Grant’s name would come a small prize, some audience applause, and a farewell handshake. As a last effort to reward a hapless guest, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” soon came to symbolize the obvious.

In fact, the occupants of Grant’s Tomb are Ulysses S. and Julia Dent Grant. But had Groucho asked, “What was buried in Grant’s Tomb?” he might have touched off very different speculations. For interred within the great mausoleum overlooking the Hudson River are a series of unexpectedly bitter controversies, testimony to some unresolved and perhaps unresolvable issues facing the late nineteenth century. The debates surrounding the design of the tomb, the campaign to raise the funds, the festival created for its dedication, and, above all, the struggle over where to house Grant’s body—all involved significant choices. And some of the passions they roused have not yet disappeared.

Grant’s Tomb, of course, was and is a monument. In the 1880s, the decade of Grant’s death, monument building was relatively new to Americans. According to legend, republicans were ungrateful to their heroes. At the time of the Revolution some Americans sought, through vast and imposing edifices, to put the lie to such myths. The more ambitious proposals came to naught, but a few cities managed something. Baltimore constructed a Washington Monument impressive enough to earn it the nickname of the Monumental City. Charlestown, near Boston, erected a granite obelisk commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill. And most impressive—and humiliating —of all was the District of Columbia’s Washington Monument, designed by the architect Robert Mills as a great shaft rising from a circular temple. Though the cornerstone was laid in the 1840s, the obelisk was not completed for more than thirty years, and the temple itself was omitted.

Despite these major efforts, memorials recalling heroic deeds or famous lives were rare. For the most part our Presidents were buried quietly, without ostentation; often they lay in village cemeteries or on their own estates. George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon was a favorite visiting spot, but it was picturesque rather than imposing.

The aversion to impressive monuments, to pomp, and to militarism came to an abrupt end, however, in the 1860s. With hundreds of thousands dead and battlefields stretching from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, the postwar generation developed a new landscape of sacrifice. Memorials could now become links between past and present, demonstrations that heroism had not evaporated into a haze of materialism. Their style, their means of financing, and their ceremonies of dedication became important. Individual philanthropists often supported monument campaigns, but large gifts violated the need for broad community participation; patriotism demanded this generation show the same spirit of sacrifice it celebrated. And far from home the states erected markers on battlefields where their regiments had fought so bravely; Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Antietam became great open-air shrines.

These monuments were designed by a growing band of specialists. By the 1870s the once-modest corps of sculptors and architects had swelled into something like an army. Hopeful Americans sailed to Italy, France, and Germany for instruction, and many returned home with polished skills and impressive ambitions or remained abroad, awaiting commissions. While individual patronage helped immensely, only community support would do for those seeking work on a grand scale. Monument building seemed a solution to the problem of artistic sustenance. Massive and expensive statues, tombs, columns, and arches could employ a whole profession and fulfill those lavishly patriotic motives.

The terms of the first contest to design the tomb enraged architects; but many of them entered it nonetheless.

And it was not only the war dead who received such honor. Soon statesmen, sailors, poets, firemen, scientists, inventors, and preachers were being immortalized in marble and bronze. Their statues, along with benches, gateways, bell towers, flagpoles, shelters, and fountains, were making an Age of Monuments. The New York Times spoke darkly of the “mania for monuments.” There seemed little selectivity. “The land is cluttered with stones that try ineffectually to lift leaden names out of the dust …,” complained The Nation. Eager to demonstrate corporate recognition, Americans were increasingly celebrating mediocrity.