Three Days in July, A Cyclorama and the Enduring Symbolism of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIt was hard to imagine the brutality of war as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside.   The landscape was fifty shades of green with rolling hills, great rock outcroppings and a sky of brilliant blue.  And yet, on the days of July 1st through July 3rd of 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought with over 51,000 soldiers wounded, missing or dead at its end.  A war that had begun over states’ rights and numerous contentious issues of free versus slave states, which foreshadowed the greater question of the preservation of the Union, gradually had evolved into an all-out effort to subjugate the old South and banish the institution of slavery.  Like all American school kids, we’d grown up learning the bones of the story and reciting dry facts.  As adults, we’d read our share of the countless books and essays that have been written about it.  And yet, during our visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, the significance of the Civil War seemed especially sobering in view of the great rifts and divides currently afoot among the people of the United States today. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center we watched a short film which sketched in the historical events leading to the Civil War and, two years into the war, explained the importance of Gettysburg as a turning point in the conflict.  Nearby, a massive painting called a cyclorama piqued our interest and got our undivided attention as it showed in painstaking detail, the final battle in Gettysburg where the Confederate infantry brigades attacked and made one last attempt to overwhelm the Union soldiers.  Known as Pickett’s Charge, the decisive defeat of the south at Gettysburg came in less than half-an-hour with more than 5,000 Confederate men broken upon the fields: missing, wounded, dying or dead.Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoA trendy form of entertainment in the late nineteenth century, cycloramas were panoramic images built in the round that gave the viewer, who stood in the middle, a 360-degree view of the action; battles, of course, were popular depictions.  Hundreds of cycloramas were made and the most popular ones would travel from city to city to be displayed, often accompanied by music and narration to make the viewing of the image a complete performance. Today, only about thirty survive worldwide with three cycloramas located in the United States: Gettysburg, Atlanta and Boston.  The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, is enormous at 42 feet high (4 stories) and longer than a football field at about 380 feet. After spending months of research on the battlefield, it took Philippoteaux and his assistants well over a year to complete the huge canvas in the early 1880s.  First exhibited in Boston in 1884, the painting suffered a lot of abuse over the years including being sliced into panels and trimmed down to fit into exhibit spaces as well as temperature and humidity fluctuations, water damage, rotting and tears and fire damage not to mention improper storage.  By the time the National Park Service acquired the cyclorama in the 1950’s, and did some restoration work before exhibiting it for the centennial anniversary of the battle, it was in sad shape.  In the late 1990’s a massive conservation effort, the largest of its kind in North America, restored and repaired this historical artwork so that it could be appreciated by the more than 1 million visitors who visit Gettysburg every year. Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum. Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoAfter spending quite a bit of time walking around and examining the cyclorama, we piled back into the car and took the self-guided audio tour around the huge park which covers over nine square miles.  There are approximately 1,300 markers and monuments scattered in the fields and along the roads describing what occurred and commemorating the relevant brigades who fought there. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monuments, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIn the July heat following the Battle of Gettysburg, the smell of thousands of dead soldiers decomposing permeated the countryside and residents in and around the nearby town of Gettysburg carried peppermint oil and pennyroyal to help mask the stench.  Fearing an epidemic, the bodies of the dead were hastily buried, many only crudely identified with a pencil written note on a board.  Many more corpses, unnamed, were buried in shallow trenches and mass graves. Shortly thereafter, the State of Pennsylvania appropriated funds for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and purchased a site which included the ridge where the Union forced back Pickett’s Charge.  The reburial of the Union dead began on October 27th, 1863, nearly four months after the battle, with countless graves reopened and the remains identified if possible, many by the things they carried. The bodies clad in Union uniform were placed in wooden coffins and moved to their final resting place.  The grisly exhumation of the original graves took months to accomplish and was overseen by Samuel Weaver who made sure that only the boys in blue were placed in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.  Any grave containing Confederate dead was closed again, the corpses left in place.Gettysburg Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And what of the dead wearing the Confederate gray, moldering on a battlefield far from their homes?  A women’s group in North Carolina began to advocate for the return of these southern soldiers so that they too could be honored for their sacrifice and laid to rest.  And finally, after nine years, the first of the shipments south of the remains of 3,320 soldiers began. Most of the dead were reinterred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, but many also found their final resting places in the town cemeteries of Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

November 19th is Remembrance Day at Gettysburg.  The day honors those who gave their lives in the war and commemorates the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent address.  In his brief speech honoring the men who had fought and sacrificed their lives, President Lincoln urged the living to continue their fight for the preservation of the country.  In the years following the Civil War, Gettysburg has become a symbol of healing, a place where former Union and Confederate soldiers returned to reflect upon the battle, but also to shake the hand of a former enemy.  Maybe we all need to remember, despite the contentious political climate that exists today, what has kept our nation united these many years since the Civil War… We can only hope.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

59 comments

  • I did not have a chance to read all of the comments, did anyone suggest that you write a book? I was so impressed by your details and logical problem solving! I too remember when you started your adventure and truly enjoy it every time you write about it. Happy Thanksgiving to you! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re so glad you’re enjoying our posts about traveling and our expating experiences, Suzanne. It really is amazing to us how much our perception of the world has changed in the last few years as we’ve lived “abroad” and it’s equally fascinating to return to our home country and see the familiar in a whole new way. That goes for rethinking history lessons learned as kids … Thanks for your Thanksgiving wishes and we’ll return your wish with a Happy Holidays wish of our own!

      Like

  • Everyone growing up in the US learns about the Civil War and Gettysburg, but visiting a place always makes it real. It sounds like it affected you the same way visiting the Normandy beaches touched me. And that cyclorama sounds like an effective, low-tech way to show the enormity of what happened there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, Rachel, about the impact that a visit to memorable places can have on one. I think what really affected me was picturing the violence in contrast to the present-day beauty and serenity of the countryside. Computer simulations and movies are always great ways to learn about events but the cyclorama let us absorb the enormity of the battle as well as the confusion and chaos slowly and at our own pace from scene to scene. We’re hoping to visit Normandy next year and imagine that it will also affect us deeply, as it should. Places like these should never be forgotten.

      Like

  • I am so far behind reading blog posts but perhaps it was good that I saved this one to read after the election results. It was a gruesome reminder of another devastating time in our country’s history that we endured, as we will again. We visited Gettysburg with a couple of friends a few years, he a former history teacher, so we received a private tour. It was wonderful and was the cyclorama.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Now more than ever LuAnn, Gettysburg should be seen as a symbol of unity and people trying to find common ground as well as compromise in the interests of moving ahead. Sounds woefully idealistic doesn’t it? (I’m afraid that the gnawing anxiety we’ve both felt since November 9th won’t be leaving anytime soon…) It was sobering to look about the beautiful hills and fields that make up the battlefield and think about what happened over the three days of the battle as well as what we as a country can still learn from these events 150 years later.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hopefully we as a nation have been awakened and some positive will come of it. Thanks again for this post Anita.

        Liked by 1 person

        • As the saying goes, “A rude awakening.” And fingers crossed, LuAnn that the shift to the right does not mean steps backwards as well … Anita

          Liked by 1 person

          • Not to sound like a pessimist, but I do believe we will take some steps backwards. It is yet to be seen how far back we go.

            Liked by 1 person

            • No LuAnn. I think you are a realist versus a pessimist. The divisions between the two parties are growing ever wider. Even a few days after the election, we are both still struggling with the fact that so many people in the the US felt that Trump’s vision should be the “new” and “great” America… 😦

              Liked by 1 person

              • I read an article recently where the reporter said to take a look at where people are getting their news. Those who listen to very conservative news networks don’t necessarily even hear or read some of what others of us have. Also, some social media sites are spewing out the most ridiculous stories that are so far from the truth and no one is fact-checking much of this. When people don’t question what they are hearing or reading, I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising that there are so many misguided individuals walking around out there. I am going to continue to educate myself and help out where I can. I’m not sure what else I can do at this point.

                Liked by 1 person

                • In addition to seeing the blatant prejudice and hatred displayed over the past several months, I think that the distortion of facts and spewing out lie after lie is what has bothered us most. Obviously, news sources play a key role and it looks like disseminating unbiased news is a quaint practice from the past. What really surprised us was that so many people just don’t seem to care if something is fact checked or not. It seems like a story being out there (like the birther story) makes it true. Kind of like living in an alternate universe … Anita

                  Liked by 1 person

  • There’s nothing like seeing the lay of the land–the slopes, gullies, woods–to imagine the battle. I just read earlier today about the controlled burns being used at Gettysburg to maintain the grasslands and enhance to authentic view of the day. It’s a very moving monument to the historic events.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Travel is “the gift that keeps on giving,” even after the journey is over! It gives us a better understanding of historical events and keeps encouraging us to learn more about them. Until your comment though Kristin, I hadn’t though about how the grasslands might change over the years although it’s easy to imagine the woods encroaching. The people who work for the park service and the efforts to maintain and preserve the site are definitely underappreciated!

      Like

  • Hi Anita and Richard,
    Conrad and I have been to Gettysburg several times — separately as kids and then together later on. All of the Civil War sites peppered around the eastern US country sides are sobering reminders of an awful war. It’s important for all people to visit and understand! “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
    Thanks for the reminder!
    ~Josie

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s funny Josie (and not in a ha-ha way) how many times we’ve thought of the quote you mentioned in the past few days. Over the years we’ve also visited several Civil War sites and each one is a terrible reminder of a time when discourse failed, solutions could not be reached using diplomacy and violence was unleashed as a last resort. The war to preserve the Union concluded with the abolition of slavery but civil and equal rights are still an issue to this very day. A chasm exists in the US now between two visions of what our country’s future will be and the uncertainty of what lies ahead is indeed sobering…

      Like

  • Amazing what can happen in three days. Thank you for taking us with you on this tour of Gettysburg, the cyclorama really brings the battle to life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re right, Tim and Nat. Three days near the small town of Gettysburg helped shape the course of a nation. The South never really recovered from the unexpected and devastating defeat of the battle and thereafter, was put in a defensive position with all future battles occurring on its ground. It may have been the bloodiest battle ever fought on US soil but it was a turning point towards reuniting the country.

      Like

  • Hi Anita. Very interesting post! I had no idea that Gettysburg was such a major attraction and had 1300 markets on the site! Definitely sounds like it’s worth a visit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s definitely worth a visit, Doreen. Probably every American schoolchild learns about the Civil War, the importance of Gettysburg and in fact, Richard and I both remembered that memorizing Lincoln’s eloquent address was also required. There is something thrilling about visiting a place you’d heard about as a child and luckily we were able to avoid the crowds at the site since we visited late in the summer. There’s more that enough to do in a day but, if we ever get a chance to visit the area again, we’ll plan on taking a long tour.

      Like

  • History always seems to life when you visit the places where it happened. And that cyclorama gives a good idea of what Gettysburg must have looked like during the Civil War. A fascinating visit!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s really amazing to visit places we grew up learning about Karen and it was interesting to imagine the events that took place over 150 years ago. The artist of the cyclorama, Paul Philippoteaux, spent weeks walking about with former soldiers, learning about the various engagements, where the regiments were placed and tried as accurately as he could to paint an accurate depiction. Truly fascinating!

      Like

  • We’ve made several trips to Gettysburg from our home in Northern Virginia, and there is always something new to learn. First time visitors should consider hiring one of the park guides for a very informative and more personal tour. You can also tour the battlefield by bike, horse. or Segway, but we agree that it’s best to start with the movie and cyclorama. Great article!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Julie. We’d love to make a return trip to Gettysburg and (next time) will follow your advice about taking a tour. There really is something to be said about a well-informed guide who can point out the significance of different sites as well as relate some not-so-well-known stories to make the experience even more meaningful. We were both surprised to feel the emotional impact of being at this historical site as well as relearning what Gettysburg has to teach future generations.

      Like

  • Would love to visit Gettysburg. The history and the scenery are both amazing. Looking at the pictures in your post it makes it seem inconceivable that somewhere so pretty could have been subject to so much bloodshed too. The paintings in your post are incredible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The countryside is so idyllic Johanna, which makes an obscene contrast to the history that occurred across these hills at the Battle of Gettysburg. We thought the various scenes of the cyclorama did an amazing job of showing not only what happened during the battle but also illustrated the confusion and violence of a war between citizens of the same country with different visions of what the future of the country should be.

      Like

  • As I Canadian I know of Gettysburg but not familiar with all the details and have never been. 51,000 injured, missing or dead? We talk about our wars now but looking back in history (and some of those epic battles during the World Wars) it’s unbelievable the numbers of dead or injured. The battle of Stalingrad during WWII for example – over 1 million Russians alone dead or injured. Its hard to fathom what hell that must have been. History is always a good thing to learn from…sad unfortunately how short memories are and the general lack of education that leads to the repetition of history….

    Frank (bbqboy)

    Liked by 3 people

    • The quote attributed to George Santayana that “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” keeps coming to mind,Frank. It really is hard to visualize the staggering number of casualties in Gettysburg as well as imagine the troops lining up and marching towards the cannons and rifles to a certain death. And Stalingrad’s battle as well as the siege at Leningrad is an amplification that’s almost impossible to understand. There’s no glory in anything related to the brutal business of war …

      Like

  • Gettysburg National Military Park sounds like a good place to learn more and get some perspective on the American Civil War. As a Canadian, I know only the broadest context about the Civil War, but not much about the details. I am particularly interested in the cyclorama. I’ve never seen one of those. It sounds as if an amazing amount of work goes into creating one.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’d never heard about a cyclorama either, Donna and you’re right about the time (over a year) that was spent in making this historic work. There were four versions produced and two of these are still in existence in the US, among the last of the great canvases. In the days before the talkies and movies it’s fun to imagine what a theatrical production a visit to see the cyclorama must have been, complete with narration and music!

      Like

  • The cyclorama sounds amazing! Growing up in Australia I learned very little US history. We were mainly fed British and Australian history. I’m even pretty sketchy on European history, and the history of Asian countries – nada! Still I did glean a little info about the American Civil War – mainly that it was about freeing the slaves. I find slavery both unsurprising and incomprehensible. Human beings are capable of so much – both good and bad. What a story we weave. From the little I’ve read I get the feeling this election campaign has revealed just how much racism there still is festering underneath. I find that too both unsurprising and incomprehensible.
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • A lot of what we love about travel is learning about the history of a place and, since we haven’t lived in the US for 4 years now, we feel like tourists ourselves, learning more about the history of our own country. Unfortunately Alison, you’re so right about the ugliness that’s been exposed during the US election campaign – it makes us feel heartsick. We’ve spent the last day (November 9th) trying to reconcile our hope for unity, a celebration of diversity and moving forward towards a global vision to a bleaker view for the future … Anita

      Liked by 1 person

  • A place that I would like to visit. I have always had a fascination for the American Civil War ever since I was a boy and I had a 100 piece Airfix civil war soldiers set. Being British where we always root for the underdog I always had a sympathy for the South.
    That exhumation business sounds rather unpleasant!

    Liked by 2 people

    • What we’re finding interesting as we go through the comments, Andrew, is how many people who read our blog come from other countries but still have some knowledge of the American Civil War. I’m not sure you could point to many in the US who might be as familiar with British history! And yes, the exhumation sounds gruesome. There was an interesting story that we found of one gentleman, Samuel Weaver, who was present at every one of the opening of graves (over a period of several years) and would use an iron hook to probe the pockets of the dead, looking for Union soldiers to rebury them in the national cemetery as well as trying to find and identification. Grisly indeed!

      Like

  • Very timely post. I just finished James Cotton’s ‘The Greatest Speech’ about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It’s full of fascinating details about that little town that holds such a tremendous amount of American history, and your post covers a lot more of it. Thanks, keep ’em coming.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just checked out the book you referred to online (yah! it comes on Kindle) and we downloaded it as it looks like a great read that we’ll both enjoy. It’s always interesting to read the story behind the story, so-to-speak, and fill in details of a momentous event in the history of the US. And, on another note, we met your Bouquete friend, Remi here in Lagos. So fun to be reminded that the world really can be a small place!

      Like

  • Fascinating history , I would love to visit Pennsylvania and this incredible National Military Park. Sounds like you can easily spend a whole day there to explore it well? The cyclorama is definitely a national treasure, I am glad it has been restored.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You could easily spend the day hiking or walking about the battlefield which covers over 9 square miles, retracing the skirmishes and checking out the over 1,300 markers as well as the cemetery. It’s fascinating to see this area for the first time and very sobering to realize the scope of the battle. And the work and dedication of the artist (s) who created the cyclorama is really amazing – definitely a national treasure.

      Like

  • Thanks for providing the extensive history of Gettysburg. For us non-Americans we got pieces of the story in school so this filled in a lot of the gaps. The cyclorama sounds wonderful and an amazing feat to restore.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A few years ago, due to some string pulling by a family member, we got a private tour of an area where some of the conservators employed by the Smithsonian in Washington DC practiced their “craft.” It was fascinating to see the knowledge, skill and effort that goes into cleaning, preserving and restoring original manuscripts and paintings. That gave us even more of an appreciation for the work that went into restoring such a massive canvas plus the magic feat of making it a whole piece again. Truly impressive!

      Liked by 1 person

  • I sort of kind of knew about Gettysburg, but certainly didn’t learn it in school. This was really interesting and very informative. It’s so sad that mankind was and is still full of hate 😦 . It must have been cool seeing a cyclorama. I think l would like that. How sad that it took so long for the boys inn gray to be buried properly and sheesh.. it must have been torture living close to the rotting flesh.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The cyclorama really was amazing Kemi, partly because it is so massive and partly because the painting is finely detailed. We had a hard time imagining the sheer misery of fighting in the July heat, the fear and sound of those wounded and dying soldiers in the field, the courage of those who lined up and presented themselves as fodder for the cannons and bullets and then the smell of the bodies. Such a waste. You’re so right about the hatred that we still see in this world … You’d think that we’d be able to find better ways to resolve disputes rather than looking for better weapons.

      Like

  • You really were close to us! So close yet so far. 🙂 It is a fascinating examination of history, isn’t it? The entire site is so well-preserved and identified, making it super easy to navigate through the vast space. We spent the better part of a day exploring the battlefield, even had a picnic lunch on the cliffs overlooking the valley. We have to go back though as we didn’t get to see the movie or the cyclorama. Now that we’re living on the east coast, we’re taking advantage of exploring the regions – so much history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We arrived at the Gettysburg park around noon, Patti but I can easily imagine taking a whole day to explore and walk the site as well as running out of time to visit the museum! A picnic on some of the hills would have been a great idea as the countryside is beautiful. There’s a huge difference between the west coast where the US history only goes back a couple of hundred years (we’ll forget about the millennia before that!) and the east coast with a couple of additional centuries and it’s rich history of the American Revolution and Civil War. You’ll have plenty to keep you busy where you’re living!

      Like

  • That is a lot of interesting history.. especially as I grew up in South African and so did not learn American history as a kid in school. I obviously had large gaps of knowledge. Thanks for the lesson and the interesting info.
    Peta

    Liked by 2 people

    • One of the best things we love about writing our blog is interacting with readers who come from all over the world and sharing/exchanging various histories and cultures. It’s good for us to brush up on our US history but it also reminds us how big the gaps are in our knowledge of world history. So glad that we were able to share a bit of US history with you, Peta and we’ll have to dive into some South African history one of these days!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Great perspective! We have acquaintances in England that are Civil War buffs. I have forward to them trying to lure them to our home in Pennsylvania…haha! Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There are lots of reasons to travel to Pennsylvania but our visit to Gettysburg was a highlight of our time in the state. Like so many people who grow up in the US, we’d learned about the Civil War over the years and Gettysburg holds an almost mythological place in the telling of the conflict, especially Lincoln’s brief but beautiful “Gettysburg Address.” If your friends are Civil War buffs, a visit here really should be on their bucket lists!

      Like

  • I have also been to Gettysburg and appreciated seeing it again through your ideas. This topic is very timely as noted in your poignant last sentence.

    Liked by 2 people

  • It’s been years since I visited Gettysburg and your narrative offers fascinating details I didn’t know. I don’t recall the cyclorama on my visit but thanks for the details on its origin and history. Your photos of it are excellent, but I can’t tell – is it still displayed in a 360 degree round?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Dyanne. I kind of fell down a rabbit hole when I was reading about cycloramas before we wrote this post as this was the first time we’d even heard of them. Once we really looked at the painting closely, we were blown away by the details painted in each scene. It’s a massive painting in the round with benches for the audience in the middle and, of course, the entrance. It’s hard to picture it tattered and in disrepair as the conservators have restored it beautifully!

      Like

We'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s