The Battle for Grant’s Tomb

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The “American volunteer at rest, with his hands folded on the muzzle of his gun,” William Dean Howells’s character Annie Kilburn felt, had become “intolerably hackneyed and commonplace.” The bulk of the other monuments, one New York newspaper charged in 1882, were barren and worthless. Why were American monuments so poor? The answer was threefold. First, many were created by professionally undeserving or even incompetent artists chosen by open competition. Second, many were dedicated to the memory of obscure figures. And third, quite a few were placed in unseemly settings. Some single great example might well reverse the baleful trend. But who would the figure be? And who would choose the artist? Select the place? And raise the money?

Thus, in July 1885, when Ulysses S. Grant lost his battle with throat cancer, many American sculptors and architects felt an undeniable sense of anticipation. Grant was the greatest American of his age. Twenty years after Appomattox his military accomplishments had grown into legend. The scandals of his Presidency had receded into the shadows created by subsequent political indiscretions. And he had thoroughly rescued his reputation by the heroic struggle to provide financial independence for his family by finishing his autobiography. At the time of his death Grant stood high in the hearts of his countrymen. Clearly he would have some monument, and it would be a big one.

Planning and discussion began almost immediately. Many cities would erect statues of one kind or another, but the great prize would be to house the general’s body. Unlike the cases of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson, Grant’s monument would be his tomb. There seemed general agreement about this, although the precedents were not numerous. The most elaborate presidential monument completed before the 1880s had been the one built for Abraham Lincoln in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was not a successful gesture. The awkward obelisk never became an effective symbol for the War President. That place would be filled by the log cabin until Henry Bacon created the great Greek temple in Washington forty years later. The Lincoln Memorial, not the Lincoln Tomb, became the popular icon.

A more powerful marker would, in fact, soon be under construction in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. The grief surrounding the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881 spurred a large subscription drive for his tomb. The Garfield Memorial, designed by a Hartford architect, George A. Keller, was probably America’s first great mausoleum, with a 180-foot-high Romanesque turret, mosaics, bas-reliefs, and a heroic statue of Garfield, who lay buried in a bronze casket in the crypt. But this design was chosen only in 1884 and would not be completed for several years. And the procedures followed by the Garfield Monument Association did not excite universal admiration; indeed, they forecast the difficulties Grant’s Tomb would face.

There was certainly little problem raising the money. Almost immediately after Garfield’s death prominent Ohioans created a committee and issued circulars; banks, newspapers, and postmasters leaped to assist; and governors appointed their own commissioners. With a goal of $250,000, Ohio proposed to raise $100,000 for its favorite son. Within a year Clevelanders had contributed $73,000, and by March 1882, half the total sum had been gathered. A Garfield Monument Fair, complete with military parade and attendance by President Chester A. Arthur, was actually held in the United States Capitol. It was an unprecedented action—and an unimitated one. Crowds did considerable damage to the building, and the fair brought in only $7,500. However, it was one of the campaign’s few failures.

By the fall of 1883, two years after beginning, the managers had collected $150,000 and began their efforts to obtain a design. And here came the problems, particularly for the architects. The monument trustees set aside $1,000 for the winner. Outraged by the modest sum, The American Architect and Building News, in October 1883, called on “gravestone manufacturers’ apprentices and kindergarten pupils” to compete, declaring that although the compensation was about the “meanest … offered for any artistic work,” it would pay the winner “for the time needed to stick a few ready-made ‘emblems’ and stock modeller’s figures around a block, in such a way as to pass muster among a jury of politicians and financiers.” When The American Architect discovered, several months later, that the invitation had been published in foreign technical journals, it blushed for the country; “its mean and ignorant assurance appears doubly conspicuous by contrast with the terms of competition usually found there.”