- 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
Today, with controversial new forms of art surrounding it, the great mausoleum no longer focuses attention on its original purpose.
Other governors were also upset by the order of the march. New York justified the precedence they received by insisting that positions were assigned to the states in the order of their admission to the Union. This accounted for placing Illinois last among the thirteen. But it didn’t explain why New York was first.
Philadelphia newspapers raised another issue. They were worried that their National Guard units’ participation in the tomb ceremonies might lead to their boys’ missing a local Washington Monument dedication a short time later. New York’s wickedness, they warned, would expose the guardsmen to temptation. The New York Times replied tartly that Philadelphians were depressed because their troops might discover the difference “between a real city and their big town” and suggested that Pennsylvania’s reluctance was economic. Their citizen soldiers would visit New York, compare their uniforms with those of other, more generous states, and return home with expensive demands.
All this, however rancorous, was minor. The Philadelphians attended and enjoyed themselves. So did the Illinoisans. And there was little question about the splendor of the site or of the dedicating pageant. Grant Day turned out cold and blustery, but Riverside Park proved spectacular. While The New York Times admitted that the display did not quite equal the recent coronation of the czar, it insisted that this was the greatest parade in American history and demonstrated our advances in pageant making. Aided by the “sinuosities and inequalities” of the roadway, spectators throughout Riverside Park caught marvelous vistas of the land parade, and the naval display was appropriately imposing. Flowers and decorations abounded throughout the city: in churches, hotels, and shopwindows. Both the “noble pleasure ground,” as the Times called Riverside Park, and the host city apparently justified their choice.
New York, moreover, turned the occasion into an economic event as well. Merchants persuaded railroads to lower their excursion rates and permit visitors to spend time in the city transacting business before returning home. The result was so gratifying that the Merchants’ Association, originally organized on an ad hoc basis for Grant Day, announced it would become permanent, seeking semiannual excursion rates to encourage visits to New York. Modern tourism was rearing its head, and if the canonization of a President could help it along, New York accepted the advantages.
Thus, Grant’s Tomb passed into history and began its own journey into the iconography of Manhattan. Guidebooks, brochures, postcards, and advertisements soon made its features familiar to millions, and its location guaranteed flocking visitors. Today, surrounded by new and controversial forms of public art, this great mausoleum no longer focuses attention upon its intended purpose. Nor does it thrust before the public any sense of the drama its creation promoted. Grant’s famous words “Let us have peace” are inscribed upon its façade, and except for Groucho Marx and the graffitists, most have attended to this final request.