Hail Liberty

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In the next three and a half hours row on row of tossing manes, waving plumes, and slanting bayonets, and more than 20,000 men, followed the President down Fifth Avenue, then moved on down Broadway all the way to the Battery. At the reviewing stand, near City Hall, they passed before an imposing group including Cleveland, Bartholdi, Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps (the builder of the Suez Canal), and General Phil Sheridan. President Cleveland stood beaming in spite of the drizzle, returning the salutes of each unit that passed, obviously pleased by the warm reception he had received. The first band to go by broke out with the “Marseillaise,” in honor of the French luminaries on the stand. And none thereafter dared break the precedent if they could possibly manage it. There were bands of seventy pieces and bands of seven, bands from Hoboken and Poughkeepsie, Philadelphia, Boston, and Buffalo, bands from most of the city’s armories, theatres, and dance halls—over a hundred in all. Some of their regalia, as one reporter felt obliged to point out, was “somewhat moldy and careworn and a little moth-eaten.” Still the music was “amazingly enthusiastic and discordant.”

Formations of mounted Army Regulars pranced by, followed by four battalions of bluejackets from the Tennessee, the Alliance, and the Yantic, of the North Atlantic Squadron, which had steamed in for the occasion and now lay anchored in the harbor. There were also Rochambeau Grenadiers, Italian volunteers in magnificent gold-trimmed uniforms and feathered shakos, a battalion of fiercely mustached Philadelphia policemen, a carriage with a few ancient veterans of the War of 1812, another full of Mexican War veterans. A division of Grand Army veterans marched by, some in the colorful garb of the Zouaves, some hobbling on wooden legs. There were Elks, Masons, state governors, cane-swinging students from Columbia who gave the President a rousing college cheer, and a red-shirted volunteer fire brigade led by a limping, indestructible local hero named Harry Howard, who got the biggest cheer of anyone. And finally a venerable carriage that had belonged to George Washington went rolling by, pulled by eight dapple-grey Normans.

Sweeping past the President’s stand, the marchers went on down Broadway to Wall Street, where, according to one witness, the tickertape reception was so enthusiastic that “every window appeared to be a paper mill,” then on to the Battery and the rain-soaked crowd that swarmed about the sea wall, hoping for a glimpse of the main attraction of the day, the unveiling. Their hopes, however, were futile. The thick, salt-smelling mist that had enshrouded the city for days shut off all view of the statue, and hid most of the spectacle that was taking place just offshore.

By now the harbor was a honking, tooting, whistling carnival of ships of every imaginable shape and size. There were yachts, ferries, barges, a dozen kinds of launches, shrill-shrieking tugs on a day off, French and American men-of-war, all bunting-bedecked; steamboats, river boats, police boats, sailboats, rowboats, boats big, small, old, new, the decks of some of them so black with sight-seers that they listed almost to the point of toppling into the choppy waters. One big excursion boat, the Grand Republic , had over 3,000 people on board.

Tickets to witness the unveiling and the “grand naval parade” had been on sale for weeks. For fifty or seventy-five cents, thousands clambered aboard steamers with names like Sylvan Dell, Cephus, and Magnolia to enjoy a box-lunch outing that began about eleven and was meant to finish with the evening fireworks. Quite a few of the city’s more popular clubs and fraternal orders had chartered their own boats and fitted them out with brass bands and champagne. The Union League Club had its own steamer, as did the Woman Suffrage Association, the New York Society of Amateur Photographers, the Grand Army veterans, the aldermen, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. A few more adventurous souls chartered their own rowboats and bobbed about through the foul afternoon, narrowly missing the huge throbbing paddle wheels of the steamers and evoking extraordinary remarks from many a frenzied pilot.

The number of ships officially designated to take part in the pageant came to just over 300. Shortly after noon they had started forming two lines in the Hudson, waiting for the President and his party to depart for the unveiling from the foot of West Twenty-third Street. Then, at two forty-five, the Tennessee fired a broadside and every ship with cannon or deck gun, steam whistle or foghorn, joined in as the President’s boat, the Dispatch , covered from prow to stern with flags of all nations, came through at full speed. At Bedloe’s Island the official party was greeted by a twenty-one-gun salute, then quickly ushered to the flag-draped platform at the base of the statue, which, looming above, glistened with rain, its upraised arm hazy in the mist and smoke, its face covered with the French ensign.