- Historic Sites
The Battle for Grant’s Tomb
It might seem that building a mausoleum to the great general would be a serenely melancholy task. Not at all. The bitter squabbles that surrounded the memorial set city against country and became a mirror of the forces straining turn-of-the-century America.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
There were actually excellent topographical reasons for the choice of Riverside Park. Its height and visibility permitted easy view by river traffic, and it could be part of an immense natural theater for the holding of the elaborate patriotic pageants that were just then coming into vogue. The tomb’s setting permitted great crowds to look south upon processions or to look west and see great lines of ships passing in review. The Grant funeral, in 1885, hinted at what would come in 1889, with the centennial of Washington’s inauguration; in 1893, with the World’s Columbian Exposition; and in 1897, with the dedication of the tomb. The crowds gathering to mourn Grant were among the largest New York had ever seen. As its backers hoped, Grant’s Tomb would become an important part of the city’s public landscape, an anchor for great ceremonies. The professional concerns of American architects and the regional jealousies fighting the tomb’s location were no less typical of the period than this search for suitable civic forms. The cornerstone layings, the parades, the expositions, and the victory celebrations of the nineties summarized this larger effort and the civic culture of the day.
There was one last way in which the building of Grant’s Tomb reflected the realities of modern America, and that was through its fund raising. With the congressional crisis passed and a design selected, the Monument Association could breathe more easily. But it still had less than a third of the money in hand, and after a brief, ugly spate of bickerings, public accusations, and resignations, the association took decisive action. In February 1892 it chose for its president Gen. Horace Porter, one of Grant’s military secretaries, a vice-president of the Pullman Company, president-general of the Sons of the American Revolution, and future ambassador to France. Energetic, single-minded, and devoted to Grant’s memory, Porter set in motion a whirlwind campaign. He organized New York’s trades, professions, and institutions into several hundred committees with some twenty-five hundred members who agreed to canvass for subscriptions. Day after day, through March and April 1892, newspapers announced the new committees: Dry Goods Importers; Shirt Manufacturers; Wallpaper and Furniture Decorators; Diamond and Silversmiths; Architects; Paper Manufacturers; Hotelmen; Physicians; Attorneys; Brokers; and so on and on. Clubs were covered; so were schools and colleges. Contribution boxes appeared in elevated railway stations, in banks, in department stores. An auction of paintings raised almost $3,500. Appeals were made in churches. Porter promised that the necessary $350,000 would be collected in sixty days. After one month of work, by April 27, 1892, Grant’s birthday, some $200,000 had flowed in, and President Benjamin Harrison laid the tomb’s cornerstone. Chauncey Depew delivered an address in which, on the one hand, he deprecated the glory of centralized power and the splendor of national Valhallas like Westminster Abbey but, on the other, seized such dignity for Gotham, asserting that Grant had selected New York for his final resting place because it was “the metropolis of the continent and the capital of the country.” Thus, the very act of building the monument caught the tensions between New York’s cosmopolitan ambitions and the hostility which they aroused.
By May 30, after sixty days of work, General Porter announced that $350,700 had been added, all but $22,000 of the total by New Yorkers. The city’s honor had been sustained. In the end some ninety thousand separate contributions created a fund reaching almost $600,000. The extra moneys paid for the great sarcophagus, a seventeen-thousand-pound piece of red granite quarried in Montello, Wisconsin.
And so, on April 27,1897, almost twelve years after Grant’s death, in an elaborate set of ceremonies, the Monument Association turned the tomb over to New York City. “Since the transfer of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to France, and their interment in the Hôtel des Invalides,” General Porter had written, no function equaled “in solemnity and importance” the dedication of Grant’s Tomb. With sixty thousand marching troops, a parade of ships sailing up the Hudson, with choral societies and bands, in the presence of one million spectators, the President of the United States, the Vice-President, the mayor of New York, ambassadors, generals, admirals, and thirteen governors, Grant Day arrived. Despite the enormous enthusiasm, not everyone was totally satisfied. Reviewing the finished tomb, The Critic found the superstructure well designed and proportioned but not large enough to crown the great supporting base. Column lengths were unsuitable, and the tomb lacked the necessary sculpture. Americans would “have to be content with bigness and with the dignity of the monument’s location.”
Sectional rivalries also continued to rankle. The governor of Illinois was upset; his state received last position in the parade. “New Yorkers, I suppose,” Gov. John Riley Tanner told the press, “do not know that Grant came from Illinois.” Moreover, Tanner complained, he had received only three tickets for the ceremonies. Perhaps, he speculated, New York was short of money; the tickets did cost five dollars apiece.