Monument to General Thomas (Thomas Circle Monument)

Sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward


The experience that most Washingtonians have most of the time of the monuments of the city is of the looming men on horses at the foci of the many traffic circles in the central core.   That is to say, while we know they are there, we barely ever notice them.  While driving (or even walking) we have to pay close attention to where we’re going to negotiate the horrendous traffic that the circles in particular seem to generate.  The circle is a sort of cordon sanitaire around the monument keeping us from paying real attention to it. The same goes for the people in the circle, which is one reason the municipal authorities accept protesters gathering in them.

There is also a psychology involved.  Writing of another imperial capital, Vienna, in 1926, Robert Musil well observed that “nothing is more invisible than a monument.”  Visitors to our art museums, such as the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Art Museums, are most often initially drawn to highly-publicized temporary exhibitions.  Less common, though often more rewarded, are dedicated viewers to the matchless permanent collections of these institutions.  The city’s monuments, in a sense, are its ultimate permanent collection: things you think you can always come back to really look at later, if you’re still interested. They are no match for the more temporary delights you’d better get while they’re hot, from events to restaurants.

Which is a pity, since so much of Washington’s actual topography is experienced around these monumentalized military men.  They are a signifying unit inscribed on the city’s urban fabric, extending the monumental feel of the Mall throughout the city as a whole.  To Washingtonians, Farragut, Ward, Logan, Scott, Grant, McPherson, McLellan, etc. represent places—public circles and squares, stops on the metro, landmarks for giving directions—far more than individuals.  Of course, almost all cities have places and objects designed to memorialize its significant people.  But in Washington the stakes are higher.  Here local identity is edged out by national identity: primarily those men who led the wars of the 19thcentury.   Notably, the Civil War, today our most contentious and controversial, is represented almost exclusively by those of Union soldiers (with one striking exception that proves the rule). This has hardly escaped partisans of the Confederacy, who have erected their own monuments elsewhere, some of almost comically vast proportion, to proclaim, or perhaps scream out, their own history.

The monument to Major General George Henry Thomas is one of a group of 18 of the most prominent of them, set aside in 1978  for historic recognition (and National Park Service maintenance).   It is often said to be among the best of its type: the equestrian statue, which abounded especially in Washington.  Thomas appears as a commander of resolute vision. He    sits astride his horse, having removed his hat for a full view of the battlefield. The slight upward tilt of the terrain suggests a hillcrest or other command point.  The general calmly surveys the terrain despite the wind that flares the horse’s nostrils and blows his mane.  He is elevated on a high, elliptical base with minimal inscription.

The public dedication of the statue in 1879, less than a decade after Thomas’s death, was attended by an estimated 50,000 viewers, including many former Union soldiers.  It was an occasion not only to revisit a triumph but also to remake the image of a leader.  The earliest of Washington’s grand celebratory military equestrian statues was the 1853 statue of Andrew Jackson as revolutionary war general, the first colossal bronze statue cast in the US.  Rather bizarrely, it presents Jackson carefully holding his hat near his head while astride a springing horse with front hooves elevated far above the ground.  All portrait sculpture must have the head free to be viewed, which could present a problem for portraying a military man in uniform.  By contrast, the sculptor of the Thomas statue, John Quincy Adams Ward, found a far better solution to the problem of the hat than the befuddled Clark Mills, sculptor of the Jackson statue, who had never seen a full-scale equestrian monument before he created one.

But dealing with the horse is an even greater challenge in such a monument, and has led to many different configurations of horse and rider.  The bewildering variety of horse positions in American military monuments has led to a long-lived myth that they represent something significant about the soldier’s death.  In actuality, the physical relation of horse and rider is an aesthetic decision.  The bombastic charge of the horse that Jackson sits on looked so bizarre and off-putting that legislators even took up the role of art critics.  Thus the congressional contract for the Thomas monument stipulated that the horse must have at least three hooves on the ground.  The bombastic conception of Jackson’s dramatic image connects to an earlier Romantic tradition associated particularly with Russia, while that of Thomas as stately, dignified leader goes back much farther, from Neo-Classicism to the venerable realm of Roman emperors.

But it is almost like the monuments are speaking only to each other on these questions, suspended over your head or preserved in pedestrian-only parklands, as you have plenty of other things on your mind in just dealing with the traffic.  Which is a last particular quality of the Thomas monument and its many brethren throughout Washington. They come from an age before automobiles, and a different conception of time.  They think you may just have enough time to look at them. Alas, they are mostly mistaken.