A monument stands in the center of a cozy-looking traffic island (Worth Square) near the intersection of 25th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan: an obelisk, once the city’s tallest structure, designed by James G. Batterson who helped design the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress. It was built over 150 years ago to honor a now forgotten general whose grave beneath the obelisk is constantly rattled by a steady stream of motor vehicles and underground trains.
The general’s name was William Jenkins Worth. He was a Quaker who, of all things, pursued a military career. He fought in the War of 1812 when he was 19, and then became a West Point commandant of cadets, seeing action again in the Seminole Wars in Florida; he was gentle Indian-sympathizer at a time when those kinds of sympathies were very unpopular. He fought in the Mexican-American War at Veracruz and, in an assault on Mexico City, contracted cholera and died.
He was a highly regarded commander in his day (Fort Worth, Texas is named after him), and especially admired in New York City. Worth’s body was brought here, entombed in this once pastoral part of the city, and the obelisk erected in his honor shortly after. “And then, inevitably, Worth’s reputation began to fade. Perhaps the wars he fought are not the wars we choose to remember.”
Not long ago, an amateur historian by the name of Edward Hochman paid a slight yet significant tribute to General Worth. He had developed, through his research on Worth’s life, a fondness for the general. One night, as he walked pass the obelisk, he was struck by the barrenness of the general’s grave and, on a whim, decided to do something about it. He purchased some flowers (the cheapest to be had at $4.00) and tossed them on the monument. A police car suddenly appeared and Hochman grew worried that he would be ticketed for littering (!). He took off into the night but (happily) told his story to NPR’s All Things Considered…a most enriching story to read this Memorial Day.