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Revolutionary War general’s statue in Civil War official’s park

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Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 4:30 am

I am 8 years old. Why is there a statue of Nathanael Greene in Stanton Park?

— Will Davis, Washington

I discern several issues in young Master Davis’s question. Among them: Who is Nathanael Greene? Why does he deserve a statue? Who is Stanton? Why doesn’t he deserve one? Why is Greene’s statue in Stanton’s park in Washington?

We’ll start with a basic fact of Washington statuary: If you want to be memorialized in bronze, it’s better to be a soldier than a politician. True, if you become president, you will probably get a statue, but anything short of the White House and you’re pretty much out of luck.

For example, take Edwin Stanton, secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet. It was Stanton who uttered the memorable “Now he belongs to the ages” after Lincoln died in a little house across from Ford’s Theatre.

With that crazy facial hair (no mustache, fuzzy sideburns and a gray-streaked beard that reached to his sternum), Stanton would have made a good statue. Instead, he has a square, the little park where Maryland and Massachusetts avenues intersect in Northeast Washington, seven blocks north of the square named for fellow Lincoln Cabinet member William Seward.

I could not pin down the exact date the square was named after Stanton, but he suspects it wasn’t long after his death in 1869. Despite Stanton’s prickly personality (and the animosity which Southerners would always feel for him), his colleagues in government no doubt felt he should be remembered for his service to the nation.

General Greene

According to the Hill Is Home blog, as early as the late 18th century, Congress wanted to honor Revolutionary War hero Gen. Nathanael Greene. But it wasn’t until 1874 — as centennial dates related to the Revolution started cropping up — that they appropriated the money, said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

By then, this particular patch of real estate was already called Stanton Square (or Stanton Park).

Greene was born in 1742, in Rhode Island, into a Quaker family that operated an iron forge. Whatever the pacifist leanings of his faith, Greene recognized that war with the British was coming, and he helped establish a militia unit, the Kentish Guards. By 1775, he had been made a brigadier general, becoming one of George Washington’s most trusted advisers. He was involved in such Revolutionary War battles as Trenton and Brandywine and was quartermaster general at Valley Forge. Greene then led the fight to secure the South from the British.

In honor of his service, Greene was given land in Georgia that had been owned by a Tory sympathizer. He moved his family to the Mulberry Grove Plantation in 1783. Perhaps the low-country weather did not agree with Greene’s New England constitution: While riding his horse in 1786, he died of sunstroke.

Greene rides forever in artist Henry Kirke Brown’s equestrian statue, which was authorized by Congress in 1876 and installed in Stanton Square a year later. The uniformed Revolutionary War hero is in the saddle, a hand raised as if pointing toward the Redcoats. His horse’s left rear hoof rests daintily atop a cannonball. The cost for the statue and its granite pedestal was $50,000 (although Brown groused that he should have been paid more).

Lasting legacy

We say that politicians have constituents, but that’s only while they serve. Generals, on the other hand, forge bonds in battle that outlive them. Said historian James Goode, “You had thousands of men who served under you and admired you. They had votes, and they wanted the statues put up.”

That explains the multitude of Civil War generals that started appearing in our parks and circles barely 10 years after Appomattox. Greene’s fellow soldiers were long gone by 1877, of course, but his legacy was such that even schoolchildren back then knew his name.

Goode thinks it is odd that Greene’s statue is in Stanton’s park. He thinks the latter should be renamed after the Rhode Island general. (In fact, some old guidebooks used to use the terms interchangeably.)

That would be unlikely. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt was unsuccessful with his idea to switch the statue of Andrew Jackson that’s in Lafayette Square with the statue of Washington that’s in Washington Circle. “Then all the statues in (Lafayette Square) would have been Revolutionary War people,” Goode said. “Jackson really doesn’t fit in there.”

The Commission of Fine Arts refused.

By the way, Greene’s statue is pretty hardy. In 1930, a gust blew it from its pedestal, burying the general’s face in the dirt up to his neck. Luckily, it suffered barely a scratch.

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