Saturday Art: General William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman gilded jeh
I really love public art; stuff that you can see without paying for admission to a museum. Here is a great example of late 19th Century sculpture, the equestrian statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman located in Grand Army Plaza at the southern end of Central Park in Manhattan. It is the last major work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens(1848–1907). Saint-Gaudens, born in Dublin to a French father and Irish mother, immigrated to New York with his parents as an infant. He was a leading Beaux-Arts (neo-classical) sculptor during the so called American Renaissance era.

Grand Army Plaza was named after the Grand Army of the Potomac (the Union Army of the Civil War). The sculpture represents General Sherman’s 1864 march to the sea from Atlanta. Public art in those days was rich in allegory and this is no exception. The winged goddess of victory (Nike) strides ahead of Sherman. Her right hand is outstretched, as if guiding him forward; she is wearing a laurel crown and carrying a palm frond in her left hand, a symbol of peace. In the rear view photo, you can see that Sherman’s horse is treading on a pine branch, pine trees being symbolic of Georgia.  . . .

Photo courtesy of pls47(Patrick) via Flickr.

General Sherman was born in 1820 and died on February 14, 1891. Shortly after his death the New York City Chamber of Commerce, many of whom had been his personal friends, decided to raise funds for a statue of him, and chose Saint-Gaudens as the artist. In modeling Sherman, Saint-Gaudens worked from a bust of Sherman that he had created in 1888, so Sherman may look older than he actually would have been in 1864, although he already looks pretty worn in this photo taken in 1865.
Saint-Gaudens spent years working on this piece, partly due to illness, and also because he was such a perfectionist. He changed the General’s cloak and Nike’s gown countless times, until he was satisfied with the drape. Finally, he wrote to his son “I have got a swelled head for the first time in my life. I have become a harmless, drooling, gibbering idiot, sitting all day long looking at the statue. Occasionally I fall on my knees and adore it.”* He lived to attend the dedication in 1903. I can’t describe this work of art any better than Peter Schjeldahl did in The New Yorker a couple of years ago:

“Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded bronze equestrian statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman, at the southeast corner of Central Park, across from the Plaza, is my favorite public art work in New York. I always pause, when I have time, to contemplate the grizzled warrior and the Angel of Victory who strides ahead of him, arm raised in joyous salutation, and “seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s,” as Frank O’Hara observed in a poem. There is so often a pigeon atop the General that it might as well be gilded, too. Old-fashioned monumental statuary attracts jokes and pigeons, of course. For generations now, we have lacked the mental means for taking it seriously, even when we notice it. But this work moves me. It is fantastically adept, for one thing. Willem de Kooning once remarked of Saint-Gaudens, “He got the guy to sit right on the horse! You know how hard that is?” The bluff oneness of rider and steed is indeed striking. And Sherman’s ravaged, ornery visage convinces utterly, crowning Saint-Gaudens’s signature feat of investing idealist art with realist grit. Modelling the head, in 1888, took eighteen two-hour sessions, during which the artist asked Sherman to button his collar and straighten his tie. The dishevelled sitter demurred: “The General of the Army of the United States will wear his coat any damn way he pleases.”

Read more at The New Yorker

The Wikipedia entry on General Sherman is also well worth reading. Here are a few interesting things I found: Sherman was relieved from duty for a time early in the war, suffering from what appears to have been a nervous breakdown. He later made this famous declaration of loyalty to General Ulysses Grant – “General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

From Wikipedia about the Georgia campaign:

“Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign concluded successfully on September 2, 1864, with the capture of the city, abandoned by Hood. After ordering almost all civilians to leave the city in September, Sherman ordered in November that all military and government buildings be burned, although many private homes and shops were burned as well. This was to set a precedent for future behavior by his armies. Capturing Atlanta was an accomplishment that made Sherman a household name in the North and helped ensure Lincoln’s presidential re-election in November. In the summer of that year, it had appeared likely that Lincoln would be defeated; in August, the Democratic Party nominated as its candidate George B. McClellan, the former Union army commander. Lincoln’s defeat might well have meant the victory of the Confederacy, as the Democratic Party platform called for peace negotiations based on the acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s independence. Thus the capture of Atlanta, coming when it did, may have been Sherman’s greatest contribution to the Union cause.”
……after the November elections, Sherman began a march with 62,000 men to the port of Savannah, Georgia, living off the land and causing, by his own estimate, more than $100 million in property damage. Sherman called this harsh tactic of material war “hard war”, often seen as a species of total war. At the end of this campaign, known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, his troops captured Savannah on December 21, 1864.
…….For the next step, Grant initially ordered Sherman to embark his army on steamers to join the Union forces confronting Lee in Virginia. Instead, Sherman persuaded Grant to allow him to march north through the Carolinas, destroying everything of military value along the way, as he had done in Georgia.
His military campaigns of 1864 and 1865 freed many slaves, who greeted him “as a second Moses or Aaron” and joined his marches through Georgia and the Carolinas by the tens of thousands.
(in January 1865)….. Sherman issued his Special Field Orders, No. 15. The orders provided for the settlement of 40,000 freed slaves and black refugees on land expropriated from white landowners in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Sherman appointed Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, an abolitionist from Massachusetts who had previously directed the recruitment of black soldiers, to implement that plan. Those orders, which became the basis of the claim that the Union government had promised freed slaves “40 acres and a mule”, were revoked later that year by President Andrew Johnson.”


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