Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Franz Sigel Monument - Riverside Park at 106th Street

When the Sigel Monument was unveiled in 1907 Riverside Drive was still lined with handsome mansions around 106th Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
When the German Revolution, sometimes called the March Revolution, erupted in 1848 the revolutionaries had a valuable ally in Franz Peter Sigel.  He had graduated from the Karlsruhe Military Academy in 1843 and served as a lieutenant in the Baden Army.

Sigel rose to Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the revolutionary republican government of Baden; but when the revolution was defeated, he fled to England.  Among the other exiled rebels in London was Dr. Rudolph Dulon, former pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church of Werban, and his family.  The minister's 20-year old daughter, Elise, had often heard of the brave military leader and in 1853 the two met.

Any hope for romance seemed to have been dashed when Dulon moved his family to America shortly after that meeting.  But before long Siegel, too, arrived in New York and in 1854 the couple was married.

After briefly teaching in the New York City public schools, Sigel moved to St. Louis in September 1858 where he became a professor at the German-American Academy.  But as had been the case in his homeland, his passion for social equity was soon evident.  He lobbied German immigrants into the Union and antislavery causes and vocally supported both.

When war broke out Sigel was commissioned colonel of the Third Missouri Infantry.  He was promoted to brigadier general on August 7, 1861, endorsed by Abraham Lincoln.

But other generals did their best to steal the credit for Sigel's accomplishments.  In his 1862 book, Heroes and Martyrs, historian Frank Moore explained that in October through December 1861, "while all was movement, life, and triumph around him, he fretted in compulsory inactivity, till it seemed that he was forgotten, or that there was an intention to ignore his past services."  A friend of Sigel later remarked "For a long time things have looked as though the intention were to trifle with him."
General Franz Sigel -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

Sigel tendered his resignation.  But the other generals had underestimated his immense popularity and support.  On January 9, 1862 The New York Times reported "A statement that Gen. Franz Sigel, of Missouri fame, has been driven by neglect and ill-treatment to resign his command in the United States service, is producing the greatest excitement among the German American population of the entire North."

The following week The Rebellion Record reported on a massive New York City assembly.  "The great meeting in favor of Gen. Franz Sigel, which took place at the Cooper Institute, was attended by more than ten thousand of the most respectable and solid adopted citizens of German birth, and was characterized by most enthusiastic speeches and resolutions."   A committee was formed to go to Washington and demand that Congress investigate the causes of the general's resignation.

The nationwide outrage at Sigel's treatment prompted a response from the Abraham Lincoln himself.  The Rebellion Record reported the President was determined that "he should decline the acceptance of Gen. Sigel's resignation" and added "His Excellency the President took further occasion to express his sincere satisfaction with the patriotism shown by the adopted citizens of German birth during this unholy rebellion, and particularly acknowledged the so well known and meritorious services of Gen. Franz Sigel."

With the ordeal behind him, Sigel returned to action.  His leadership in the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 8, 1862 was his greatest triumph.   Sigel was given various duties throughout the remainder of the war, suffering a notable defeat in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.  It did little to tarnish his reputation among German Americans and he emerged from the war a bigger-than-life figure.

He and Elise had four sons, Robert, Rudolph, Franz and Paul, and a daughter Leila.  The family moved briefly to Baltimore where Rudolph Dulon ran the Socialist newspaper The Baltimore Wrecker.  Both Franz and Elise worked for the newspaper.  The New York Times later remarked "Mrs. Sigel, having inherited the literary ability from her father...became widely known through the articles she wrote for this publication."

The Sigels moved back to New York in 1869 as Franz planned his campaign for Secretary of State of New York.  They were staying in the house of "Mr. Otterberg" on East 17th Street when the general's popularity was made obvious on the night of March 8 that year.

The Times reported "The friends and countrymen of General Franz Sigel assembled in considerable numbers last evening at the Steuben House, in the Bowery, for the purpose of organizing a serenading party to compliment the General on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Pea Ridge."   A procession through the streets arrived at the Otterberg house.  "After the performance of a number of airs by the orchestra, the General appeared and responded in a few remarks, which were enthusiastically cheered."

Sigel was defeated in his run for Secretary of State.  But he remained highly involved in the political and social activities of New York.   When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, reporters came to him for military and political insight.  And in 1873, when the city was debating on the best means of public transportation for the rapidly increasing population, Sigel was one of the speakers in the discussion at the Cooper Institute on February 18.  He proved that in addition to his skills in educating, writing and military planning, he understood engineering as well and provided his proposal for an elevated railroad.

Franz Sigel's proposal for an elevated railroad included arched girders similar to those seen in contemporary train sheds.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Sigel's popularity was exhibited again in November 1888 when he traveled to Pennsylvania to attend a meeting of the German Democrats.  The Philadelphia Record wrote on October 28 "Although years have passed by since he sheathed his sword and settled own to a peaceful life in his adopted country, and the shadows of age are now falling around him, he still retains much of the fiery spirit which made him victorious on many a well-fought field, and his utterances have about them a simple directness and a fervid eloquence which not only awaken enthusiasm but carry conviction."

At the time of that article Sigel held the position of United States Pension Agent in New York City.   It was a trusted position that meant that hundreds of pension checks passed through his hands before being distributed to their beneficiaries.  The accessibility to the checks was a temptation too great for Sigel's son, Robert, to resist.

On March 27, 1889 the Colorado newspaper, the San Louis Valley Courier, reported "Robert Sigel, son of General Franz Sigel, who pleaded guilty to forging pension checks, has been sentenced in the United States Court to six years' imprisonment at hard labor."

Humiliated, Sigel stepped down from his position.  On April 18 The Times reported "He had not been asked to resign, but he did not wish to embarrass the Administration or stand in the way of the appointment of an agent of like political faith with the powers of be."

Robert had not only ruined his own life, but that of his parents.  Two years later, on January 8, 1891 the Committee of Pensions petitioned the United States Senate to approve a pension for Sigel, saying "the beneficiary, whose distinguished service is known to all, is now old and poor and without means of support."  The House Report added "it is but an act of simple justice to care for this old hero in his old age and poverty."

Sigel died in his Bronx home "of general debility" according to The Evening World, on August 21, 1902, at the age of 78.  The tributes flowed in immediately.  The New York Times said "He was a meritorious man, and he embodied, in a high degree, the qualities which make all reasonable Americans proud of their fellow-citizens of German birth...and his memory deserves to be honored by all Americans."

The streets were thronged with civilians and uniformed military personnel on the day of Sigel's funeral.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Later that year attention was turned to Elise.  President Theodore Roosevelt received a telephone call from Karl Kapff, a German-American resident of New York on December 12, asking for his help in securing a pension for the widow.  The Times reported "A bill has been introduced in the House by Representative Lessler to give Mrs. Sigel $2,000 a year...Gen. Sigel's widow is now seventy years old and dependent, so that a strong appeal is being made in her behalf."  The pension bill, equal about $57,600 a year today, was passed in January 1903.

On March 17, 1907 the New York Times printed a full-page article announcing that a memorial to Franz Sigel was being sculpted by the esteemed artist Karl Bitter.  The article noted "He has imagined Gen. Sigel as he appeared during the early years of the civil war, erect and vigorous, on the back of an exceptionally large and powerful horse, overlooking the scene of a battle."  The newspaper reported that the "fine monument" would look down Riverside Park and the Hudson River.

The completed statue, over 11 feet high, stood on a granite pedestal designed by architect William Welles Bosworth.  The dedication ceremonies on October 19 began with a parade of described by the Columbia Spectator as "a long procession of United States troops, the National Guards of the State, the Naval Militia, the Grand Army and Spanish War Veterans, and a large division of civilians."  The New-York Tribune estimated that 8,000 members of the regular army and navy, and 5,000 veterans marched.

A massive parade accompanied the unveiling ceremonies.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The "handsome bronze statue" was unveiled by Sigel's son, Franz.  But what should have been a dignified, military affair had been tainted by infighting among him and his siblings.

Hours before the event The Times reported "The children and grandchildren of the late Gen. Franz Sigel are squabbling over the comparative prominence each of them is to have to-day at the unveiling."  The vicious quarreling was explained by Rudolph's wife who told a reporter "this disturbance was caused by Franz, who was entirely too officious and who had seen to it that she and Mrs. Paul were slighted."

The Times said "The family row got so hot that last Monday Mrs. Rudolph Sigel was summoned to the Morrisania Court."  The magistrate heard the complaints behind closed doors and dismissed them.  But the night before the ceremony, according to the newspaper, "Mrs. Rudolph Sigel said...that when she had asked for seats in the stand for to-day's unveiling she received but two which included no seat for her mother."

Nevertheless, thousands of onlookers were there and the New-York Tribune called it "an ideal day."  The Governor of New York opened the ceremony.

A horrific side story occurred two years later.  Paul Sigel's daughter, Elise (known familiarly as Elsie), was 22 years old and worked in a Christian mission downtown.  Newspaper readers the world over were shocked when her body was found stuffed in a trunk.  On June 22, 1909 the Australian newspaper The Bunbury Herald ran the headline "Chinatown Horror" and reported "The body of Elsie Sigel, who was engaged in missionary work and Sunday-school teaching in Chinatown, New York, has been found in a trunk in a room over a Chinese restaurant in that quarter of the city.  The occupier was a Chinaman, who is supposed to have murdered her."

At the time the condition of Franz's widow was serious.  The Los Angeles Herald wrote in January 23, 1910 "Since the death of her husband, six years ago, she has suffered three strokes of paralysis."  Her family was concerned that the news of Elsie's death would worsen Elise's condition.  The Los Angeles Herald explained "Elsie had visited her grandmother with regularity, and when her visits ceased and her parents were unable to offer a plausible excuse for her absence, the aged woman became alarmed."

Finally she was told that Elsie had gone away to a boarding school.  Soon, however, Elise became "piqued" that the girl had left without saying good-bye.  She also wanted to know why her granddaughter never wrote, but was never given a good explanation.  Finally, after yet another stroke, Elise Sigel died on January 17, 1910 at the age of 75.

Apartment buildings to the north now form a backdrop to the restored Sigel Monument.  photo via the New York Parks and Recreation Department.

On November 16, 1924 about 2,000 persons attended ceremonies at the base of the Sigel Monument to commemorate the general's 100th birthday.  It was most likely the last event held in the shadow of the statue.  Sigel, like so many heroes once so important in the minds of those who erected statues, eventually faded from memory.

photo via the New York Parks and Recreation Department.

In 1941 the statue's bronze sword had become dislodged.  It was repaired by Parks conservators, but was later removed entirely and put into storage.  The statue was cleaned in 1980 and recently the sword has been restored.


  1. I am sure the NYC mayor's newly appointed "monuments review commission" will find some reason to remove this and countless other statues throughout NYC based on misguided political correctness agendas run amuck and selective fact checking. Since the last posting on the Central Park statue of Dr Marion Sims, less than a month ago, a number of monuments in NYC have been defaced and also vandalized. Nice going Deblasio!

  2. It was still there in May 2023, so the previous entry's panic was unnecessary.