Ulysses S Grant Memorial in Washington

If you’re starting your tour of the National Mall at the US Capitol, your first stop as you head west is likely to be the US Grant Memorial. It’s probably good to get it out of the way early, cause it’s pretty strong stuff.

Sure, it’s majestic in places – General Grant looks calm and determined atop his horse, Cincinnatus – he’s facing west, toward the Lincoln Memorial – but below him is Civil War chaos. Here’s how the Washington Post described it: “mud, exhaustion, horrible suspense, screaming plunging horses, broken reins, swollen veins, all of this in bronze.” I suppose it would make no sense to show Grant’s leadership without also showing the men he led, but I didn’t expect to see horses’ tongues flailing wildly and terrified men in their death throes. To paraphrase Grant’s friend William Tecumseh Sherman, war statues are hell too.

So are building them – the project was commissioned in 1902, and sculptor Henry Merwyn Shrady spent the next two decades (and a quarter of a million dollars – a record at the time) laboring over the memorial, going so far as to dissect horse remains to get the equine anatomy right. While 20 years is a long time to work on one piece, and the extra horse studies paid off in unprecedented horse tongue sculpture realism, Shrady might have been better served by a break now and then – he died just before the memorial was dedicated, on April 27, 1922 – General Grant’s 100th birthday.

Today the Grant piece has another function: staging ground for tourist photos. Stand atop the memorial facing west and you’re in perfect position to have someone take your photo with the Capitol as a backdrop; face east and you’ll have a reflecting pool and the Washington Monument behind you. A saw an older woman make her adult son, his wife and their daughter not only pose but dance for her camera in front of the US Capitol. Also worth noting: the grandma here had a bunch of feathers in her hair, like Phyllis Diller’s feathered hat, only without the hat. It may not have been civil war, but it sure was painful.