SOLDIERS' AND SAILORS' MEMORIAL ARCH
Updated: Jan 25
The Arch in the Summer of 2019
Dedicated to "The Defenders of the Union," the Soldiers' And Sailors' Memorial Arch is "Brooklyn's most significant monumental public artwork" and a New York City Landmark treasured for its position at the heart of Grand Army Plaza and its ornamental sculpture, crafted by leading American artists of the late 19th century.
History of the Triumphal Arch
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, seen here in August 2022, is the world's most famous triumphal arch and the model for many worldwide. It is based on the Arch of Titus in Rome
Triumphal arches date back to ancient Rome, with recorded examples in the books as early as 190 BCE. These grand structures were erected to celebrate significant people or events, particularly great victories in battle, with the intention that a grand parade in celebration of the arch's subject would pass underneath it after completion.
The most famous still extant arch from Roman times is the Arch of Titus, erected in 81 AD to commemorate his success in putting down the Jewish rebellion in the Judea section of the Roman Empire. This brutal military campaign destroyed Jerusalem's Second Temple. In addition, the Arch of Titus served as the inspiration for perhaps the world's most famous triumphal arch, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, inaugurated in 1836 as a tribute to the French fighters lost in that nation's revolution and subsequent wars waged under the command of Napoleon.
The cultural influence of France, America's oldest ally, has weighed heavily on the United States since its founding, touching everything from art to fine dining to architecture and civic planning. Emerging from the extraordinary brutality of the Civil War, the nation possessed both an appetite for the modernity displayed in cosmopolitan capitals like Paris and the newly anointed heroes to honor with the monuments that made such cities so grand. 1889 proved to be a pivotal year for those aspirations when New York City moved to erect two triumphal arches of its own: its most famous, in Manhattan's Washington Square honoring the centennial of George Washington's inauguration as President of the United States just a few miles south, and this lesser-known but just as splendid example in Brooklyn, a tribute to Union soldiers.
The Arch: In Context
The ground on which the arch stands and the conflict it commemorates predate it by several decades. The Civil War was, of course, a pivot point for American history, one that proved to be the dawn of a new economic era. The agrarian society treasured by Thomas Jefferson faded away quickly, at least in the North, and was replaced by a rapidly expanding, fully industrialized economy built with a labor force of new European immigrants and some migrating, formerly enslaved African Americans. As the victor in the most modern war to date, the Union states saw themselves as the pinnacle of modernity, an image they sought to project by emulating the capitals of other modern powers: the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe.
Ironically, those modern cities drew their inspiration from ancient times. Advocates of this blend of contemporary planning and Neoclassical architecture, which came to be known as the City Beautiful movement, envisioned broad, diagonal streets lined with monumental buildings and terminating in grand, public institutions. Unfortunately, most American cities refused to abandon their grid street plans, and only Philadelphia built such an avenue, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which terminates at the iconic steps of the city's Museum of Art.
But Philadelphia was not the capital of this new modern civilization. That was New York City, which fully embraced the tradition of triumphal arches, beginning in 1889 with the centennial of George Washington's inauguration as the first President of the United States at New York's Federal Hall. Local businessman and philanthropist William Rhinelander Stewart conceived of honoring the occasion with a triumphal arch. He raised donations from friends and neighbors and, with their help, was able to erect a temporary wooden arch designed by famed architect Stanford White in time for the centennial celebrations.
Another hallmark of modern cities in the postwar era was open green space. In heavily industrialized cities, parks were becoming essential areas for recreation, relaxation, and healthy activity, away from the belching smoke and cramped conditions of factories. England had prioritized parks early in the Industrial Revolution, and the United States soon followed suit.
The success of Manhattan's Central Park helped inspire plans for a similar park in Brooklyn called Prospect Park. Central Park's design team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux reunited to make Prospect Park a reality, but construction was suspended during the Civil War. When the project resumed, Vaux developed the idea for a grand entrance to the new park: a large, elliptical plaza from which the park expands. That plaza became the home of the Arch.
It was in this context, in a city familiar with triumphal arches and fully aware of the power of public spaces, that Brooklyn (which was then an independent city) Mayors Seth Low and later Alfred C. Chapin began to consider the idea of a triumphal arch to honor their city's Civil War veterans.
The Arch: History
Mayor Chapin was serving as the Comptroller of New York State under Governor and future President Grover Cleveland when he was elected Mayor of Brooklyn in 1888, ten years before the borough combined with the rest of modern New York City and the office was abolished. At that moment in history, with the 30th anniversary of the start of the Civil War fast approaching and the 1885 death of President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant still fresh on the minds of Americans, interest was growing in commemorating and preserving the history of the War Between the States. Cities and towns on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line were starting to put up memorials and monuments to the conflict and its fighters, with each region casting its veterans in a noble and courageous light.
Brooklyn, then the fourth largest city in America, was no exception. The Brooklyn Common Council held a design competition for a grand monument to the city's Union veterans. A triumphal column, not an arch, was selected from the submissions, but Mayor Chapin vetoed the design, saying it was reminiscent of something that would be found in the city's nearby major cemetery. He explained,
"The design, if not commonplace, certainly does not depart strikingly from the conventional. . . . Equally meritorious, if not equally elaborate, designs may be found in Greenwood [Cemetery] and this one properly might be found there. Its tone is essentially funereal. It does not recall to the mind the patriotic pride, the consciousness of sufficient strength which animated and sustained the Nation in that supreme hour."
The Mayor's objection killed that version of the project, and a new design competition was held, this time expressly calling for a granite arch. Mayor Chapin served on the new selection committee, which deputized famed architects William Robert Ware (who founded Columbia University's School of Architecture) and Charles B. Atwood (who designed the Palace of Fine Arts at the legendary Columbian Exposition) to assess the nearly forty competition submissions and pick a winner.
Ware and Atwood selected the design of John H. Duncan, who would go on to design Grant's Tomb in Morningside Heights. Duncan won a $1,000 prize, and Bernard Gallagher was selected as the contractor for the project. Construction began in 1889, with former Union General William Tecumseh Sherman laying the ceremonial cornerstone of the arch on October 30th of that year at an event that also featured a grand parade of Union war veterans.
The Grand Army of the Republic, one of the most influential Veterans' groups in American history, which lasted for some 90 years after the Civil War, had initially sought to fund the project through public subscription. The same method would later be used to raise the funds to build Grant's Tomb. However, the fundraising drive was unsuccessful, and the New York State Legislature stepped in to issue $250,000 worth of bonds to cover the construction costs.
In the end, government funding for the project made sense because the arch significantly revitalized one of the state's most important public places. As mentioned above, the Plaza where the arch now stands was created years before as the grand entrance to Prospect Park, Brooklyn's largest and most important public green space. In the years preceding the arch's construction, however, the Plaza wasn't so grand. An economic downturn in the early 1870s had halted most of the work in the area, which had only recently resumed after the war's end. By 1888 the Brooklyn Parks Commission was slamming the Plaza as a "failure" that was "devoid of all life and a stony waste...suggestive of Siberia in winter and Sahara in the summer.”
The addition of the Arch changed all that, with continuous improvements made to the Plaza after the new monument's completion in 1892 when former President and former New York Governor Grover Cleveland (who was then out of office but just weeks away from being elected back into the White House) attended the dedication ceremony. By the turn of the century, the area was being referred to as Grand Army Plaza, the name it still retains, in honor of the Arch, the brave men depicted upon it, and the organization that represented them.
An image of the arch and surrounding plaza taken sometime between 1900 and 1910
Image from the Detroit Publishing Company via the Library of Congress
A view of the arch and plaza between 1901 and 1906. Prospect Park is to the right, across the plaza, and beyond the columns. In the distance are the former reservoir located at which is now Mount Prospect Park, its former water tower, and the Brooklyn Museum, built in 1895.
Image from the Detroit Publishing Company via the Library of Congress
The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was entirely consumed by coverage of the Arch's dedication ceremony, including a fine drawing of the celebratory parade marching underneath
The Arch: Design
A closer look at the arch in the summer of 2019
"Its massive simplicity dominated the day's display like a mighty force from another world" -The Brooklyn Daily Eagle describing the Arch on the day of its dedication, October 1892
The Soldiers and Sailors' Memorial Arch is reminiscent of both the Arch of Titus in Rome and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is itself inspired by the Arch of Titus. Eighty feet wide and 80 feet high, the memorial sports a massive archway some 50 feet high and 35 feet wide, surrounded by three allegorical sculptural groups, one on either pilar and one (called the Quadriga) crowning the top of the structure. Below is a closer look at the different architectural and sculptural features of the Arch.
The Arch rises from a dark, polished granite base set in a brick plaza. The rest of the arch is sculpted from lighter-colored granite.
The North and South pedestals of the archway are faced with engaged Composite columns, three on each face.
The columns terminate in finely carved composite capitals depicting the fruits of the sea, the fruits of the land, eagles, and ships' prows, also known as a "beak" or "rostrum." Such ship imagery is a symbol of naval victory, which, like the arch itself, harkens back to Ancient Rome, where a section of the Roman Forum was decorated with the "beaks" of ships captured in war. That section of the Forum hosted public speakers, which is why the English word "rostrum" denotes a platform or stage for public speaking. The tentacle volutes represent the Ionic order of column design and symbolize naval supremacy.
On panels between the columns, carved medallions represent the several different Army and Navy corps in which Brooklyn men served during the Civil War. Living veterans of the war would have had a personal connection with those symbols, making the Arch especially meaningful for them.
The soffit (underside) of the arch consists of deeply recessed coffers. The keystones carved with eagles and shields hold the arch in place and weigh nine tons each.
The beautifully carved stone spandrel panels reputedly weigh fourteen tons each. They were sculpted by Philip Martiny, the French-born artist who immigrated to the U.S. in 1878 and worked under the legendary Augustus Saint-Gaudens for five years before setting off on his own. Martiny lived long enough to carve figures for WWI Memorials in New York City and sculpted prominent figures in the Library of Congress' Jefferson Building, along with many other works throughout his career.
The east spandrel panel is titled Public Order. It depicts a winged allegory of Victory holding a fasces, a bundle of wooden rods that was a symbol of political power in Ancient Rome. Fasces forms the root of the Italian word, later adapted into English, fascism, a political system that worships and consolidates power, which the fasces represented, and puts it all in one person's hands.
That symbol of raw power is counterbalanced by what the Victory holds in her other hand, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, indicating that all power-and as the work's title suggests, public order- in the United States derives from its founding document the one which the Union went to war to enforce and protect.
Lest the message be unclear, the allegory is explicitly spelled out in the Arch's dedication: "TO THE DEFENDERS OF THE UNION 1861-1865", clearly stating the reason for the Civil War was a defense of the Union and the Constitution which holds it together.
The west panel, appropriately titled Victory, features a winged allegory of Victory that holds a globe with another, smaller Victory figure atop it, a double representation of the Union's success in the Civil War and thus in preserving the Union and defending the power of its Constitution. The larger Victory wears a crown of laurels to signify her dominance and success.
The spandrels on the north facade feature carved medallions. This one depicts the Great Seal of the State of New York, with Lady Liberty on the left side and a blindfolded Lady Justice on the right. An eagle stands above them atop a globe, and the state's motto, "Excelsior," is inscribed below.
Across the Arch, in the opposite spandril, there is a carving of the Seal of the City (now Borough) of Brooklyn, which depicts Lady Justice holding a fasces topped with a blade and the official motto "Eendraght Maeckt Maght" a Dutch phrase which translates to "Unity makes strength."
The arch also has interior space, accessed through doors like this one in each pillar. Inside is an iron staircase that leads to the roof. The stairs are being repaired during the ongoing renovation. There is also a room inside the arch, which initially served as a memorial hall where artifacts and relics from the War could be displayed. This feature made the arch a monument to Union veterans and a destination where they could gather to commemorate their service. Grant's Tomb in Manhattan, also designed by John Duncan, also includes trophy rooms displaying flags of the regiments Grant commanded, a further sign these memorials intended to serve living veterans as well as honor the dead.
The Arch: Sculpture
While the carved stone figures of the spandrels are distinctly Roman in their subject and design, the bronze sculptures which rest upon the Arch's north-facing pedestals are far more reflective of the French interpretation of a triumphal arch. For example, the Arc de Triomphe prominently features composite sculptures on its pillars, while the Arch of Titus does not.
If the sculptures seem like additions to the Arch rather than a cohesive part of it, that is because they were, in fact, added years after the initial 1892 completion of the Arch, in a process overseen by famed architect Stanford White of McKim, Meade, and White, a firm that had been hired to help build out the park's entrances.
Sculptor Frederick MacMonnies photographed in 1900, during the years in which he was completing the Arch's bronze sculptures.
Image from Bain News Service via Library of Congress
White retained the services of the Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, who became an apprentice to Augustus Saint-Gaudens at age 17, studying and working alongside Martiny. Saint-Gaudens soon recommended that MacMonnies go to Paris to study. He stayed for 30 years, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1893, MacMonnies completed the Columbian Fountain, a centerpiece at the World's Columbian Exposition, the event credited with inspiring the City Beautiful Movement, which the Arch, Grand Army Plaza, and Prospect Park were built in the midst of.
MacMonnies' training in France made him quite famous in the United States until some of his nude sculptures were found to be too scandalous for the restrained tastes of the era. Despite the controversies, MacMonnies found steady work throughout his career, working in various mediums, from bronze medals to oil painting. He collaborated with McKim, Meade, and White several times.
In a strange twist of irony, MacMonnies' life was completely upended by the Civil War, which he now sought to memorialize and glorify in these sculptural groups. His father was an import dealer whose business was ruined by the war's blow to trade and the economy, forcing a young Frederick to leave school and take a series of odd jobs to help the family make ends meet. He eventually landed on sculpting.
The Army: Genius of Patriotism Urging American Soldiers on to Victory
This sculpture is an enthralling representation of a Civil War army battle. A thicket of bayonets pokes out from the long rifles of the troops. A man in an elegant officer's uniform leads the charge with a raised saber. There are a flute player and an injured drummer whose sticks are still clutched in his hands as he falls. An older bearded man with a determined look stands beside a young, fresh-faced soldier with a grimmer countenance. Both are in uniform, armed, and ready to fight. Beside them, an injured horse falls to the ground, while a wounded soldier does the same from a greater height above them. On the far left of the sculpture sits the broken wheel of a cannon.
Above the fray, a female figure wears the scaled armor and helmet of a Greek or Roman goddess but is winged like the Victories in the spandrels. This is the Genius of Patriotism, an allegorical amalgamation of ancient goddesses like Athena and Minerva, plus the Victories and Lady Liberty that represents the pure essence of the cause the soldiers were fighting for and the love of country that compelled them to do so. She rides a galloping horse, sounding a trumpet to inspire the battalion.
A flute is played at the back of the pack, beside the raised legs and hooves of the Genius' galloping horse and above the broken cannon wheel.
The Army sculpture was MacMonnies' second for the Arch, after the Quadriga. Cast of bronze at LeBlanc Barbedienne foundry in France, it was dedicated in 1900 and stands 22 feet high.
The Navy: American Sailors at Sea, Urged On by the Genius of Patriotism
The navy sculpture is a bit more subdued; however, it is no less grand. Here too, an elegantly uniformed officer takes the lead, pointing in one direction and holding a megaphone rather than a sword. The Genius of Patriotism is back too, but this time she firmly represents the American Navy, most clearly with the trident she holds aloft and the eagle that crowns her helmet. In the right rear of the group is a ship's wheel. A sailor calls out in front of the wheel, hand raised to mouth to amplify his voice. In the left front of the sculpture is the ship's cannon.
Beside that cannon, two proud, bare-chested sailors wear looks of unfettered determination and bravery. One, white, is standing stiffly holding a sword, while the other, Black, is kneeling, indicating that he might be an emancipated slave. Brooklyn is today and has historically been home to an especially large and vibrant Black community. Black soldiers and sailors played a significant, though often overlooked, part in the war effort. The inclusion of the Black figure here is an important note for the historical record of the community's contributions. Still, it represents the unfortunate, ingrained bias of the sculpture's time, as the figure is literally not presented on equal footing with his white peers. Behind the two sailors, the ship's mast and sail are visible in the rear of the sculpture group.
The Navy sculpture was the final work MacMonnies created for the Arch, cast in two parts in Paris and New York and dedicated in 1901. Like its peer across the archway, it stands 22 feet high.
Quadriga: the Triumphal Progress of Columbia
Crowning the top of the Arch, the Quadriga was the first piece MacMonnies sculpted. At the center is Columbia, riding in a chariot drawn by four galloping horses. At either side, two more victories, winged like their peers in the spandrils, sound the trumpets of triumph to herald her procession.
The chariot is decorated with an Eagle, stars, and the motto "E Pluribus Unum," Latin for "Out of Many, One," a traditional motto of the U.S.
The sculpture as a whole represents the triumphal progress of the United States after the Civil War, with Columbia being an allegory for the nation. In one hand, she holds a banner that unfurls behind her from a pole topped with yet another eagle and a laurel wreath, other symbols of an American victory. In her other hand, she raises a sword or pike as if to defend the progress she is making by force, which is precisely what the soldiers and sailors commemorated below her did.
Sculpted of bronze like the two works on the piers, the Quadriga stands a bit higher than them, 25 feet, while each trumpeting victory figure is 11 feet tall. Like the Army sculpture, this work was cast at the LeBlanc Barbedienne foundry in France, but it was created first in 1898. Almost 100 years later, in 1976, the statue of Columbia fell out of the chariot, calling attention to the deteriorating condition of the Arch and prompting a two-year renovation of the structure. Finally, the NYC Parks Monuments Conservation Program restored the three sculptures in 1999.
The Quadriga victories have become an unofficial symbol of Grand Army Plaza and are represented in the Grand Army Plaza subway station.
Lincoln and Grant
While the exterior sculptures of the Arch honor the ordinary soldiers and sailors who physically did the fighting, the interior is home to powerful relief depictions of their leaders: President Abraham Lincoln and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army, Ulysses S. Grant. The all-star honor roll of artists and architects who contributed to the Arch is completed by the names of the sculptors of these commanding works: Thomas Eakins and William Rudolf O'Donovan.
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art calls Eakins "America’s greatest, most uncompromising realist," who "dedicated his career to depicting the human figure." Primarily a painter, Eakins was instrumental in expanding American art beyond its traditional focus on landscapes and introducing the human subjects common in fine European art of the time. Like MacMonnies, Eakins studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts before returning to his native Philadelphia to teach art at the Pennsylvania Academy. However, his emphasis on the nude was considered inappropriate for the era. Toward the end of his career, he struggled to find work, often using friends and family as subjects.
At the same time, O'Donovan "was at the epicenter of the New York art world," according to the Met. He belonged to many of the exclusive art communities of the era, including the Tile Club, of which he was a founding member, where he hobnobbed with his talented contemporaries, including Winslow Homer, of whom he sculpted a bust. A Virginia native, O'Donovan was a veteran of the Civil War, having served in the Confederate Army. He had no problem paying tribute to the victorious Union commanders who had triumphed over his side of the conflict.
Eakins and O'Donovan appear to have known each other and been friendly. O'Donovan sculpted a bust of Eakins for the National Academy while Eakins photographed O'Donovan at work in his Philadelphia studio. The two had also previously collaborated on the Trenton Battle Monument in New Jersey's capital city. For their work on the Arch, Eakins crafted the horses while O'Donovan sculpted Lincoln and Grant themselves. Both artists also signed the pieces on the bronze panels from which the sculptures rise.
Beneath the head of Grant's horse is the inscription:
W R O'DONOVAN
The sculpture of President Lincoln is a medium bronze relief depicting him on horseback. Equestrian statues were another tradition of Ancient Rome, often created to commemorate the military victories of generals or emperors, just as triumphal arches were. While the setting and presentation are Roman, the Lincoln depicted in the work is the singularly American character still recognizable today, sporting his signature beard and top hat.
Though he had been President by the time this work was sculpted, Grant is shown in this high bronze relief as a Union General, in uniform with its large buttons clearly visible. While the Lincoln figure appears to have stopped and posed, Grant is seen in motion, feet in stirrups, reins in hand, with a hurried look on his face, bearing the burden of the decisions a war commander must make. The figure is heroic, but in an understated way, as if to celebrate the execution of duty rather than pure Victory.
A wider shot shows the Lincoln figure in more context, surrounded by granite and above the door to the interior staircase and trophy room.
This view of the Grant figure shows how the reliefs are dwarfed by the Arch's soaring soffit and are small compared to the MacMonnies sculptural groups on the pillars. The significant size discrepancy reinforces the Arch's primary dedication to ordinary soldiers and sailors rather than their leaders. However, according to the Prospect Park Alliance, the reliefs were intended for the front of the Arch but were "criticized for their unusual proportions and lack of grandeur" and moved to the inside instead.
The Grant and Lincoln figures were sculpted in 1893 and 1894, then installed the following year. They were formally dedicated in 1901 by the City. Both sculptures face north to greet parades that would march under the Arch.
A plaque installed after the 1999 refurbishment of the Arch's sculptures lists the honor roll of incredible artists and architects who contributed to it.