Gen. Henry Warner Slocum
East Side of Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn
This statue of the Civil War general Henry Warner Slocum, who commanded the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps, sits on a small hill, positively obscured in the summertime by a riot of weeds, trees and shrubbery, just to the north of a small paved area on the east side of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, right where Plaza Street East, Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway merge. Slocum serves as a mounted counterpoint to the horseless figure of his Civil War colleague, Gen. Gouverneur Kemble Warren, who stands on the western side of the traffic circle. They were two of many Civil War statues erected around the turn of the century.
Slocum is depicted astride his horse, holding his saber above his head in his right hand, as though frozen in the middle of issuing some great, dramatic order on the battlefield. Interestingly, the statue was criticized because 1) it supposedly didn’t look like Slocum and 2) Slocum was apparently not, even in battle, the demonstrative sort. (You can compare the picture at the left with photographs of Slocum here. Personally, I think it’s close enough.) But more about that later.
The Slocum monument, ironically for a statue that has seemingly faded from importance, was dedicated with considerable pomp on Memorial Day, May 30, 1905: None other than President Theodore Roosevelt was on hand, delivering a stirring keynote address while on a whirlwind five-hour tour of Brooklyn. The Times’s coverage was painstaking: Roosevelt, it is recorded, arrived at Jersey City on a train from Washington at 7:08 a.m. After breakfast at the Brooklyn Union League Club, Roosevelt joined New York Mayor George Brinton McClellan at the dedication stand. (The statue was originally installed on Eastern Parkway at Bedford Avenue, east of Prospect Park. It was moved to its present location in the late 1920s.)
After a band played the national anthem and an invocation by the Bishop Fred Burgess, the parks commissioner M. J. Kennedy gave a short presentation speech, followed by a longer address by the mayor, who referred to the effort to build the statue as a “patriotic sentiment of a patriotic people.” He limited his remarks to glowing praise of Slocum:
Those of us who were born since the Civil War know Slocum the soldier only as we have read of him in books, but we loved Slocum the man as we met him in the ordinary affairs of life, a public-spirited citizen, a fearlessly honest man, a kindly and a simple-hearted gentleman.
Roosevelt (good god), for his part, left no rhetorical stone unturned. After a tortured response to the opening invocation (he drones at one point, “wherein Amalek came out and Israel fought all day, and while Aaron and Hur upheld the hands of Moses…”), Roosevelt plowed ahead, first expressing thankfulness that the rifts of the Civil War had shown every sign of fully healing. After a confusing detour into metaphysics (…”I congratulate the people of Brooklyn, not primarily upon raising this statue, because that they ought to do, but upon the opportunity, upon the chance of having it to raise. …”), Roosevelt blithely glazed over Slocum’s career to lecture on what he saw were the “two sides of the lesson taught by Gen. Slocum’s life.” One side, Roosevelt said, probably pounding the podium as he spoke, was:
The man who possesses a great ability and great courage unaccompanied by the moral sense, a courage and ability unguided by the stern purpose to do what is just and upright, that man is rendered by the fact of having the courage and the ability only so much the greater menace to the community in which he unfortunately dwells.
(Presumably, Slocum was one with moral sense.)
The other side is that no amount of good intention, no amount of sweetness in life, no amount of appreciation of decency avails in the least in the rough work of the world as we find it unless back of the honesty of purpose, back of the decency of life and thought, lies the power that makes a man a man.
Roosevelt, from there, trips lively through some hot-button issues of the day, namely his desire for a powerful military, specifically a large navy. Then he sprinted to the finish with rousing praise of Civil War veterans, exhorting, “You have left us not merely a reunited country, but you have left us the glorious heritage of the memory of the exploits, of the qualities, by which the country was left reunited.”
The ceremony was capped by the unveiling of the statue by Slocum’s granddaughter Gertrude and a parade of some 10,000 people, including members of the Army’s 8th Infantry, several national guard regiments, an immense group of Civil War veterans and their sons, letter carriers, volunteer cadets and the boys’ brigade. Daniel Simmons Jr. was the grand marshal.
Roosevelt watched the parade for a bit, then made a quick speech at the Navy Yard before busting a move back to the capital. (He reached the pier at Fulton Street, The Times reported, at 12:48.)
Slocum’s statue was sculpted by Frederick William MacMonnies and cast by the E. Gruet foundry in 1902. It cost $27,000.
The statue of Slocum became a bit of a poster child for the perceived problem of sculptors who paid little heed to the subjects of their monuments. The controversy was such that The Times opined in a June 11, 1905, editorial:
The equestrian statue of Gen. Slocum, unveiled under such distinguished auspices in Brooklyn on Memorial Day, brings up anew the question whether it is or is not desirable that a professed portrait statue should look anything like its subject. Most sculptors, we suppose, would admit that, even if it were not as recognizable a likeness as a good photograph, such a statue should give the subject’s “type.” That is what the statue of Gen. Slocum conspicuously fails to do. It would be characteristic of Sheridan, say, or of Custer, or of Phil Kearny, even though it should resemble any one of them as little, specifically, as it resembles the modest, quiet and circumspect commander whose whole nature it transforms.
The Times’s editorial board was by no means alone in this sentiment. Many of the men who served under Slocum made similar complaints, at least two of whom offered their opinions to The Times’s letters page. A letter from Hugh Hastings of Albany appeared Feb. 2, 1902, three years before the statue’s dedication, boldly likened the Slocum monument to other “atrocities” in New York’s parks, writing that: “MacMonnies’s statue is effective, artistic and impressive; but it is not characteristic — it is not Gen. Slocum.”
Robert Flaherty of New York, whose letter appeared two days later, endorsed Hastings’s assessment, offered his own eyewitness account of Slocum’s calm demeanor under fire, and complained that he could not understand “who of the General’s friends could have accepted the design…” He concluded:
Now, if Mr. MacMonnies would enlarge the head and body, put glasses on the nose with a blunderbuss in the other hand, it might pass for a very good statue of the immortal Teddy at San Juan Hill, but for Gen. Slocum— never.
The pedestal is pink Milford granite and Green’s Landing granite, and is flanked by curious medallions depicting a female face. The front of the pedestal sports a medallion of an eagle and the word SLOCUM engraved beneath. The figure of Slocum and his horse and the medallions are made of bronze. All told, it’s 17 feet tall.
Henry Warner Slocum was born in Delphi, N.Y., on Sept. 24, 1827, and died on April 14, 1894. He graduated from West Point and was a prominent lawyer and legislator in New York before joining the Union Army. After the war, he served in Congress and was Brooklyn’s public works commissioner. Read more about him here.
In 1989, the monument was refurbished by the city.
Updated Nov. 25, 2007