Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gutzon Borglum's "Sheridan"

I wrote a couple weeks ago about Gutzon Borglum's statue of John Peter Altgeld  hidden in the trees across the street from our front door.   Borglum, who was responsible for wresting the busts of four presidents out of the Black Hills between 1927 and 1941, was awarded the commission for Altgeld's statue in 1914.  

But there were two earlier commissions, awarded to Borglum in 1907 and 1909, that really brought the sculptor critical attention.  One of those statues is is located in Sheridan Circle in the nation's capital.  The other is located about six blocks up Sheridan Road from the Altgeld statue in Chicago.  Both of Borglum's works are equestrian statues honoring General Philip H. Sheridan and Winchester, his favorite mount.

General Philip Sheridan at Sheridan and Belmont (Bartholomew Photo)

The General was, of course, a hero of the Civil War.  Ulysses S. Grant had noticed his boldness and ability early on and by 1864 had promoted him to Chief of Cavalry.  Shortly thereafter Sheridan's troops laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley.  Grant later wrote, "No man ever had such a faculty o finding things out as Sheridan.  He was always the best informed men in his command as to the enemy." [Chicago Tribune, July 15, 1965]

Sheridan had a particular importance in Chicago in the years after the war.  He was stationed in Chicago in 1871 as Commander of the Military Division of the Missouri.  After the Great Fire in October of that year, he summoned six companies of regular infantry to the devastated city in order to secure its burned sections and gathered a volunteer guard of a thousand men to protect the unburned areas.  

In fact, the story goes, the fire would have devastated the southern part of the city as well as the north, had not Sheridan quickly ordered buildings blown up on south Wabash Avenue near what is now Congress Street.

Watching the labor unrest in Chicago in the 1880's, he warned of "an armed conflict . . . between Capital and Labor."  He predicted, "They will oppose each other not with words and arguments, but with shot and shell, gunpowder and cannon.  The better classes are tired of the insane howlings of the lowest strata and they mean to stop them."  [Miller, Donald L.  City of the Century]

Fort Sheridan in the early days (

In fact, a military post north of the city was established in 1887, the year after the Haymarket Riot, and in 1888, it was named Ft. Sheridan upon the death of the general.

It isn't surprising, then, that as early as 1893 there was a movement to create a memorial honoring the general at a conspicuous place within the city.  On June 23, The Chicago Tribune announced that a former Cook County Treasuer, W. T. Johnson, offered a gift of $50,000 to fund a statue of Sheridan "if they will provide a suitable site for it at the head of the Sheridan drive."

We'll leave unanswered the question of how a one-term Cook County Treasurer came up with 50,000 bucks for a piece of public statuary.  Miracles happen every day in Chicago.

The nation's capital got it done first, unveiling a Borglum statue of Sheridan and Winchester on November 25, 1908.  

Family legend has it that shortly before his death, Sheridan and his wife were out walking one night and came upon the statue of General Winfield Scott.  Sheridan supposedly turned to his wife and said, "Whatever you do after I am gone, don't put me on a horse like that." []

Gutzon Borglum's "Sheridan" in Sheridan Circle, Washington, D.C.  (

Borglum's effort was the perfect response to Sheridan's request.  It was Borglum who had said earlier that Washington had gotten used to "ridiculous clothespin men on wooden horses."  His unconventional technique -- the roughness of the horse and rider and the fact that the pair is set low to the ground -- emphasized the boldness and courage that Grant had seen in Sheridan in 1862.

Finally, on July 16, 1924 Mary Sheridan, General Sheirdan's daughter, unveiled the statue at Belmont Avenue and Sheridan Road as hundreds of infantrymen stood at attention.  The Chicago Tribune proclaimed, "Thousands of motorists, to whom twenty miles is a mere trifle to travel, will pass it daily." [The Chicago Tribune, July 15, 1924]

Things change, though, and the general's monument is squeezed in a triangle between Sheridan Road and a Lake Shore Drive off ramp. 

With the Chicago statue, Gutzon Borglum portrays General Sheridan seated on his horse as the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah on October 19, 1864, rallying his troops with his outstretched arm.  He is seated on his horse with his body half-turned as he reins in his horse from a full gallop. []

This was the day on which Sheridan and his horse became legends.  Southern General Jubal Anderson Early had brought his troops into a strategic position from which they could launch an attack on Washington, D. C., and Sheridan was away in Winchester, Virginia when his troops were attacked and put on the run at Cedar Creek.

Gutzon Borglum's "Sheridan" at Belmont and Sheridan, Chicago (Bartholomew Photo)

Sheridan spurred his mount to the front lines, twenty miles away.  Finding his men in full retreat, he took a few hours to prepare his forces, then ordered an advance,  sweeping the enemy from the field in one of the most overwhelming and decisive engagements of the war.

Congress passed a vote of thanks to Sheridan and his troops for the “brilliant series of victories in the valley,” and especially the one at Cedar Creek. Sheridan was appointed by the President a major-general in the army “for the personal gallantry, military skill, and just confidence in the courage and patriotism of your troops,” as the order expressed it, “displayed by you on October 19th."  [] 

Sheridan's horse, Winchester, had been presented to him by officers of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry in Rienzi, Mississippi in 1862, and Sheridan rode the horse he called "Rienzi" in nearly every engagement for the remainder of the war.  After the battle of Cedar Creek, Sheridan changed his mount's name to Winchester.  

Winchester at Belmont and Sheridan (Bartholomew Photo)

Sheridan said of Winchester, "He was an animal of great intelligence and immense strength and endurance.  he always held his head high, and by the quickness of his movements gave many persons the idea that he was exceedingly impetuous.  This was not so, for I could at any time control him by a firm hand and a few words, and he was cool and quiet under fire as one of my soldiers.  I doubt if his superior as a horse for field service was ever ridden by any one." []

Sheridan is immortalized in the statue.  Winchester, too, lives on in two separate ways.

First, there is the poem, Sheridan's Ride, by Thomas Buchanan Read, which ends with these words:

And when their statues are placed on hgih
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier's Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general's name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
"Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan inot the fight,
From Winchester--twenty miles away!

When Winchester died in 1878 his body was mounted and presented by Sheridan to the museum of the Military Service Institution of the United States at Governors Island in New York City.  Later Winchester was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution where the gallant steed may be viewed in the Hall of Armed Forces History in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Today Borglum's sculpture seems strangely out of place in its island, largely cut off from visitors by the traffic entering and leaving Lake Shore Drive or turning down Belmont.  A Sheridan Road bus stop backs up to the little park, and people wait for the 151 with their backs turned to this frozen and frantic dash of horse and rider, fading slowly away as the future unfolds.

1 comment:

Jill said...

As an author you give the reader quite a ride. Loved how you told Sheridan story.