Duncan’s Marvel: A Visitor’s Guide to Ulysses Grant’s Resting Place

Written by MG Subhas, Volunteer-in-Parks at General Grant National Memorial

John Duncan was a relatively unknown architect. In 1890, his submission for the second design competition sponsored by the Grant Monument Association was selected as the winning concept. Today, the stately, classical structure stands catercorner from Riverside Church and across the street from Sakura Park in Manhattan, New York. The first reaction of many visitors upon entering the monument is a mouth agape: Wow!
Grant's Tomb decorated with American flags and buntings, and two flags in the foreground are flying at half staff.
General Grant National Memorial

National Park Service


Competition and Criticism

Duncan’s design being selected as the winning submission of the second design competition was the result of a combination of two specific influences.

Classical Architecture

A significant majority of the proposals for Civil War–related monuments in many of the cities across the now re-United States were obelisks or towers. The site chosen by the Grant family for the monument is a bluff that is the second highest landform on the island of Manhattan which, at the time, was said to be visible from midtown. Visions of a towering monument which forevermore would inspire New Yorkers blossomed in many a creative mind.

However, architectural critics at the time, contemplating proposed obelisk after obelisk, bemoaned the lack of imagination. One critic is said to have cited Europe’s many classical monuments, and specifically pointed to Hadrian’s Tomb, a man whose military exploits, such as those of Ulysses Grant, were legendary. John Duncan seems to have picked up on the criticism and looked to classical architecture for inspiration.

French Connection

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in the 1800’s as now, is renowned for the study of classical arts and architecture. At the time, it is said that the culmination of a course in architecture was a “competition,” the winner being awarded a year’s paid internship in Rome.

Alexander the Great’s conquests had opened a vast area to travelers of ancient Europe, spurring the publication of guides citing “Wonders of the World” by several authors. Pliny the Elder’s verbal description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, built in the fourth century BCE (in modern day Turkey), is one such travel document. This description was, in some years, presented to the students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a final competition. They were asked to re-imagine the mausoleum since several earthquakes had reduced the edifice to rubble by the 15th century. No visual depictions of the monument exist and Pliny’s words form the historical record.

The results of the Ecole’s competition were reproduced in architectural magazines of the day, and it is presumed that John Duncan, who is not known to have gone to Paris, must have come across some of these illustrations. Heeding the voice of the critics, Duncan set about designing an imaginative, classical monument as the final resting place of General and President Ulysses S. Grant.


Unadorned Monument

The Committee raising money for Grant’s monument, hampered by its ineffective ways and by the economic contraction following the Panic of 1893, was able to collect $600,000, 40% shy of its goal of $1 million. This shortfall is reflected in a monument that lacks ornamentation and the structure itself being smaller all around, eventually standing 150 feet high instead of 180 feet that Duncan had initially planned.

Duncan’s rendering shows many statues, the most important being the pedestal with Ulysses Grant on his horse Cincinnati (named for Lucius Quinctius Cinncinatus, Roman statesman and military general known for his virtue).This statue, if it was the only one to have been done, would have been a defining feature of the monument.

Side by side pictures of a reimagined drawing of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and John Duncan’s rendering of Grant’s Tomb.
A reimagined drawing of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and John Duncan’s rendering of Grant’s Tomb.
The front facade of the monument has Grant’s presidential campaign slogan “Let Us Have Peace” in relief, flanked by two seated allegorical figures representing, most likely, the Roman ideal of victory and peace. One holds a sheaf of palm leaves representing victory and the other holds a sword wrapped in olive leaves.

Fasces - A Slave’s Fable:

At the top corners of the facade are two identical adornments showing a heraldic eagle flanked by fasces. The fasces are a symbol depicting a bundle of twigs bound by a rope that forms an X. The symbol is from Aesop’s fable titled “The old man and his sons” which concludes, as did all of Aesop’s fables, with a moral: “Strength in Unity.” Singly the twigs are weak and easily broken, but when bound into a unity, they gain in strength and are unbreakable. Aesop, historians say, was born a slave and later was granted his freedom.

As we shall see, Ulysses Grant’s final resting place is festooned with close to 70 representations of fasces - a symbol of unity envisioned by a slave who was later freed!

Looking up, the stepped dome reflects Pliny’s description of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, with the exception of a crowning statuary. Significantly, the dome rests on a parapet that is embossed with about 28 fasces, seemingly forming columns at the base of the conical top.

Thus, about 30 fasces adorn the outside of the monument. This symbol is particularly appropriate for the resting place of the man who fought hard to preserve the Union and then was indefatigable in his efforts to get the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U S Constitution ratified—and his focus on the enshrining Lincoln’s vision of unity and freedom for all throughout the two terms of his presidency.



Walking around the monument, the perimeter of the stone plaza on which the monument sits has crudely made benches covered with mosaic art. This was the result of a futile attempt in the early 1970’s by city authorities at making the site more attractive to the surrounding community and to counter its increasing reputation for delinquent activity. The benches end with two statues, a man representing a self-portrait of the artist and an unknown woman on either side of a set of steps leading down to an enclosure with a metal fence.

The enclosure has two trees, a ginkgo and a companion. At the foot of the enclosure, on its northern end, is a plaque dedicated by Viceroy Li Hung Chang,

Ulysses had, during his post-presidential world tour, met with L Hung Chang, who administered China in the name of the boy emperor. At Li’s behest, on his next stop in Japan, Grant talked the Japanese out of attacking China over a disputed claim to the Ryukyu islands, his campaign slogan of “let us have peace” resonating halfway around the world.

Li, in gratitude for Grant’s efforts, ordered a Ginkgo tree, a cultural symbol of eternity, to be planted at Grant’s resting place. It is said that the ginkgo in the enclosure is locally sourced, i.e. a native of New York City!!

General Grant sitting next to Viceroy Li Hongzhang. Below is a plaque in both Chinese and English.
Ulysses Grant visiting with Viceroy Li Hongzhang in Peking

Circling back around to the front, the efforts of the National Park Service at removing graffiti over the years is evident along the base of the monument.

A set of steps rises to a broad platform that was designed for the pedestal that would have had Ulysses Grant on his horse.

One can imagine Duncan’s vision of a pedestal with Grant’s statue. There is one such statue in nearby Brooklyn. The design of this statue was deemed, by the Grant Monument Association, to be inconsistent with Duncan’s monument and efforts to move it to the monument were abandoned. So, today the platform is empty and all of the statues envisioned by Duncan are left to the visitor’s imagination.

Statue in Brooklyn, NY of General Grant mounted on horseback.
Statue of Ulysses Grant on his horse, Cincinnati, in Brooklyn, NY

On either side of the steps sit two eagles. The eagles were placed at the monument in 1939 after the U.S. Post Office Building, pejoratively called Mullet’s Monstrosity by architectural critics, was demolished. The eagles, for some reason, were rescued and given a new home, making an inadequate substitute for the missing statues.

A few more steps lead to a columned portico and a glass enclosure within which are the monumental, brass clad, studded doors to the interior of the monument. The seemingly narrow doors are each 16.5’ tall, 4’ wide and weigh 3.5 tons. As visitors step into the monument, a typical reaction is to look up at the dome and gaze in slack-jawed wonder.

A seasonal event occurs in the days before clocks “fall back” for the end of Daylight Savings Time. Visitors who come early to the monument, with the sun low on the eastern horizon, are showered in a golden glow that lights up the interior marble and plaster walls.

The interior of Grant's Tomb illuminated by golden light
Sunlight bathes the interior of Grant’s Tomb in a golden glow

Why Napoleon?

John Duncan emulated Napoleon’s tomb for the interior of the monument with distinct characteristics from Les Invalides, Napoleon’s final resting place.

The crypt at the center of the floor with square columns and two red granite sarcophagi with Ulysses S Grant and Julia D Grant chiseled into the tops. Resting on a raised platform of almost black granite, the sarcophagi are not as large as Napoleon’s, but the style is clearly evocative.

“Why Napoleon?” The question arises naturally. As one visitor from France said, “Napoleon ultimately lost and died in exile.”

Research at Columbia University’s Avery Hall, named for the architect who was on the second design competition committee for the monument, did not reveal any of Duncan’s notes on his design choice.

Two factors seem plausible for Duncan’s choice of Napoleon, renowned for his military strategies and tactics, to be appropriate for the man who brought the Confederacy to its surrender after battles fought almost entirely in hostile, seceded territory.

The first factor is The United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. Thomas Jefferson, during his time in Paris and his association with the Marquis de Lafayette, initially held a positive view of Napoleon Bonaparte, but later soured on him. Jefferson was a proponent of the establishment of a military academy in the United States modeled after the academy that Napoleon had set up in Paris. The United States did not have a standing army, and the military academy was established to train officers who would lead the state militia in the defense of the nation. Ulysses Grant and many of the Union officers were graduates of the USMA.

Secondly, Duncan may have settled on Napoleon as the hallmark for the interior of the monument because Napoleon’s campaign across Europe formed the core of the military tactical studies at the USMA. Many of the written histories of the various Civil War battles have French terms used mainly by USMA-trained officers in their orders, e.g. abatis, bivouac, chevaux de frise, enfilade, revetment, etc attest to Napoleon’s overarching influence.

The Ecole des Beaux Arts and Napoleon are two critical connecting points of Grant’s Tomb to France.



A parapet wall encloses the circular crypt. Visitors typically rest a hand on the marble parapet and look down at two sarcophagi with Ulysses on the left and Julia on the right.

The crypt and its integration into the walls and dome of the monument are a subtle, yet phenomenal, stroke of imagination by John Duncan.

The crypt symbolizes a hole in the ground. The black border on the floor around a very dark gray granite base symbolizing an endless bottom. The granite rises in steps to a platform on which rest the two red-stone sarcophagi. The sarcophagi seemingly float, rising from the rippling darkness. As one continues to lift the eye, the black of the granite softens to a gray shade of the polished, blue veined marble from Carrara, Italy. This transition from a black gray bottom to gray rises to about head height. From that height, the wall transitions to a lighter, beige marble from Massachusetts. This marble is scored, providing a textured transition from the polished gray.

The beige marble then transitions to a heavily sculpted, i.e. more textured, white plaster surface, which in turn transitions to the interior dome and ends in a circle of smooth, pure white.

With the change in shades from a dark base to gray, beige and finally to white, accentuated by the change in texture, the architect uses the visitor’s gaze to raise the sarcophagi from darkness to light. To emphasize the vision the top of the pillars on which the dome rests are adorned with a set of soaring eagles, wings spread wide.

Again, it is presumed that this play of shades and texture is likely the reason why Duncan insisted on not using color inside the monument. This observation is quickly challenged by the colorful mosaics in the three visible lunettes, which in their vibrancy overwhelm not only the subdued hues depicting Duncan’s scene of ascension but also dull the sarcophagi into a brownish shade of red.


Mosaic Lunettes:

Three mosaics were commissioned by the Grant Monument Association for the 100th anniversary, in 1965, of the surrender at Appomattox and the end of the U.S. Civil War. The three scenes, artistically depicted by Allyn Cox, are representations of the strategic and tactical brilliance of Ulysses Grant in his efforts to bring about the end of the war of secession.

Mosaic depicting the Siege of Vicksburg battle.

After his successful capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Ulysses Grant, given his experience managing supplies during the Mexican War, prioritized targeting the supply lines sustaining the Army of Northern Virginia.

With the capture of the reputedly impregnable fortress on the cliffs by the Mississippi river at Vicksburg, the mosaic on the eastern wall, and . . .

Mosaic depicting the Battle at Chattanooga
… then moving on to Chattanooga, the mosaic on the western wall, Grant ensured that supplies from the west and the south of the seceded territories were denied passage north.
Mosaic depicting the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
A Confederate supply train near Petersburg, the last source of nourishment for troops and horses, who had not eaten for five days, is captured by Grant’s men. This news dooms the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee attempts to flee with his army. Grant pursues and blocks Lee’s retreat. The mosaic on the north wall depicts Lee surrendering to Ulysses Grant.

The mosaics visually depict that from the day Grant was appointed to head the armies of the West and over the next few years he set his sights on Robert E. Lee. Grant engaged not just the enemy he faced across the battlefield, but he also provided strategic assistance to whichever General was chasing Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln, recognizing the vision and fortitude of Ulysses Grant, appointed him general-in-chief, and after a ‘no turning back’ pursuit with several horrific battles, Grant was able to orchestrate Lee’s surrender.

Duncan again uses fasces inside the monument. Each of the lunettes with the mosaics have a semi-circular wreath, which upon close inspection, reveal themselves to be six fasces stacked one upon the other. The partially visible lunette above the door, which does not have a mosaic, also has the six stacked fasces - in all adding up to twenty-four fasces.


Pendentives of Grant’s Life:

John Duncan is also said to have not used any living, human figures in his design, preferring the monument to be solely in honor of the earthly remains of Ulysses and Julia Grant. The four pendentives that are at the corners, as the rectangular room transitions to the circular dome, depict reliefs with classical iconography. (Pendentives Architecture,

Each tableau, by the sculptor J. Massey Rhind, features a pair of figures that are allegorical depictions of virtue and victory, i.e. they are conceptual and immortal.

A pendentive featuring two female figurines and various Greek and Roman mythology symbols depicting Grant's birth and early childhood.
The relief on the southeastern corner shows a tree of life in the middle with one figure holding a book and the other spinning yarn - an allegory for Hiram Ulysses Grant’s birth and the influence of his mother.
A pendentive featuring two female figurines and various Greek and Roman mythology symbols depicting Grant's military career.
Counter-clockwise, at the northeastern corner, a sword is flanked by a figure holding a helmet and the other holding a shield representing Grant’s military career. Looking closely at the shield, one can make out the image of Medusa, a classical symbol warding off evil.
A pendentive featuring two female figurines and various Greek and Roman mythology symbols depicting Grant's civilian life and career.
The relief over the northwestern corner has a fasces - there it is again! - this time with two axes added to its sides and a finial on top, emulating the version that the Roman Empire used across its various conquered states. One figure holds a palm frond representing victory, peace and eternal life while the other holds a cornucopia representing plenty. This frieze represents Grant presiding over the Union with the promise of victorious peace and plenty for all.
A pendentive featuring two female figurines and various Greek and Roman mythology symbols depicting Grant's death.
The final tableau has a lamp on a plinth with one allegorical figure resting one hand gently on the lamp while in the other she holds white lilies turned down. The other figure holds an orb symbolizing eternity. Look closely and you will see that the flame on the lamp is bent backwards. Overall, the scene shows earthly light going out to eternal light - a poignant picture of the death of a virtuous, brave and honest man.
A stairwell from the main level leads down into the crypt. On the landing of the stairs is a display of three flags: the national flag, the presidential flag in blue and, because Ulysses Grant was appointed the country’s first four-star general in 1866, the Army General’s flag with four stars on a red background.

Battle Flag Rooms:

On either side of the stairwell is a room initially meant to be a reliquary. An octagonal display in the middle, with glass panes between eight posts in the form of - yes - fasces! - encase the flags. These flags, from 1995, are replicas of the battle flags that were brought for the 1897 dedication ceremony. We will see the only original from the dedication ceremony that survives, with its own interesting story, later.

The room on the northwestern end has a map on the wall with Civil War battle sites marked by an X made of two swords. Sites where Ulysses Grant was present have a red star on the X. This room displays the northern theater of the war from Gettysburg to Chattanooga (the site of the mosaic with Grant and General Thomas). Belmont, Fort Henry, and Fort Donelson, where Ulysses Grant won his early victories, and Appomattox are worthy of note as they locate and link the mosaics in the main rotunda.

On the northeastern side of the stairwell is a similar room, with eight more fasces as corner posts of the glass display. The wall here depicts the southern theater of the Civil War from Chickamauga, just south of Chattanooga, down to Mobile. Noteworthy on this wall is Vicksburg (the mosaic in the main rotunda) where supplies via Sabine Crossroads in Texas were brought up by train and ferried across the Mississippi. Another rail line moved the supplies to a major depot at Chattanooga. A rail line coming up from Atlanta brought supplies from the Confederate south to Chattanooga, adding to the supplies from the West. From Chattanooga, trains took supplies up into Virginia to sustain Robert Lee and his troops.

Sharp-eyed visitors have noted the misspelling of certain towns on the maps. These are, given the cash-strapped Grant Monument Association, presumably the errors of 20-something Dean Fausett, born decades after the surrender at Appomattox - who was given the commission to paint the maps.


The Crypt:

Moving back to the rotunda and descending, past the flags, down one side of the stairs into crypt, the red stone sarcophagi dominate the view, making one feel small and humble. The sarcophagi are behind a waist-high parapet wall. Around the outer wall are five recesses containing bronze busts. These busts were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (1935 - 1943), established in order to create work for artists, and thus are not part of the original design of John Duncan. It is not known for what Duncan intended these spaces.

If Ulysses Grant had to pick five generals with whom to spend an evening in his sitting room, a reading of his memoirs suggests that these would be the five, with Julia joining them as a convivial hostess.

In the center, at the foot of sarcophagi, is the stern visage of General William T. Sherman, companion and confidante, who convinced Ulysses to not resign from the Army when Henry Halleck gave Grant a virtual demotion from field command. Sherman’s advice was sound, and the needs of the war and Grant’s willingness to fight got him reinstated. Sherman’s March to the Sea destroyed much of the agricultural, road, and rail infrastructure in the immediate area supporting Lee and the units most able to come to his assistance. On Sherman’s left is General James B. McPherson, upon whose death in 1864 Grant wept openly. On the other side of McPherson is the diminutive but tenacious General Philip H. Sheridan, whose pursuit of Lee was a critical cause of the surrender at Appomattox.

On Sherman’s right is the bust of General Edward O.C. Ord, who was at the successful Vicksburg campaign and again at the capture of the supply trains at Appomattox Station. On Ord’s right is General George H. Thomas, who led in the battle of Chattanooga and was nicknamed the Rock of Chickamauga.

As one comes full circle and takes another look at the sarcophagi, it is evident that the cover of Julia’s resting place is a slight thickness taller than that of her beloved “Ulys.” Grant would most likely have not minded the slight elevation in stature accorded his devoted wife.



Ascending the stair back to the rotunda and proceeding toward the exit, a tasseled regimental flag in a glass case is prominently displayed on the wall next to the entry door. This flag has 35 stars, and lettering embroidered on one of its red stripes indicates it is the 11th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. This flag was said to have been brought up in 1897 for the dedication ceremony of the monument. It is a replica of the battle flag from 1894, i.e., it is not the flag that was actually used by the regiment during its second commission.

There is one significant point of interest with this U.S. flag. Virginia was the heart of the Confederacy, and Richmond was its capital. General Robert E. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, and had the responsibility of protecting Richmond. During the Civil War, a group of Virginians decided to de-secede and rejoin the Union. The story of the creation of West Virginia is complicated. In brief, while American states are considered to be sovereign and can only be split with the assent of the “mother” state, West Virginia was carved out of Virginia and allowed to be admitted as the 35th State of the Union. The 2nd West Virginia was part of the Union force that pursued Lee to his surrender at Appomattox.

A second cultural point of interest is that General Lew Wallace, who commanded the 11th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers in both of its tours of duty. After the Civil War, he wrote Ben Hur, which, in 1959, was made into a popular movie.

At the exit door, turning back to face the rotunda, one is struck by John Duncan’s thoughtfulness and care with which he captured the life of Ulysses Grant. The monument that seemed drab and unadorned at first sight now takes on a bright and vivid aura of reverence and honor.


Presidential Presence:

A row of London Plane trees line a walk leading toward Riverside Church. Stopping at the start of the trees and looking east across Riverside Drive into Sakura Park, one can

see the statue of Union General Daniel Butterfield, known for his composition of Taps. Gutzon Borglum, among other projects, sculpted this statue and, later, worked on designing the monument at Mt. Rushmore.

Proceeding along the walkway to the green sward across from Riverside Church brings one to three metal plaques in the ground. One of these commemorates the Battle of Harlem Heights during the Revolutionary War as George Washington was pursued by British redcoats.

This area, with the presence of Ulysses Grant and George Washington, has the aura of two storied U.S. presidents.

Last updated: April 18, 2024

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