The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas
By Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman
Review by David Lady
When first I saw the surviving copy of The Battle of Gettysburg, commonly known as the Gettysburg Cyclorama, it was a disappointment; the enormous (40 by 400 feet, weighing about six tons) painting of the Picket’s Charge defeat was poorly displayed in a cramped and ill-lit building; the painting itself was so dingy and sagging that it actually contributed little to my Gettysburg experience. Yet in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, many visitors to the four traveling exhibits of the Gettysburg Cyclorama had marveled at French painter Paul Philippoteaux’s artistic achievement; for generations of Americans it was easily the most recognized artistic representation of the battle.
Since 2008 visitors to the battlefield benefit enjoy a much better experience, for the repaired and re-stored Gettysburg Cyclorama painting has been housed in a magnificent building on the battlefield, very close to the ‘High-Water Mark of the Confederacy.’ The significant upgrade to the painting and facility inspired Registered Gettysburg Battlefield Guides Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman, assisted by photographer Bill Dowling, to create this extremely interesting study of the creation and exhibition of the Cyclorama, as well as its restoration and display at Gettysburg.
The book begins with an explanation for the development of Cycloramas, used to illustrate great battles or events in Europe and America. The authors then provide a behind-the-scenes review of the motivation for Philippoteaux, a very famous cyclorama painter, being commissioned as chief artist to create four massive Gettysburg paintings. Also detiled are the marketing and exhibiting strategies followed by entrepreneur Charles Willoughby, as he coordinated the display of these paintings throughout the nation up to the early twentieth century. Some detective work was required to finally identify which of the copies was finally permanently emplaced at Gettysburg in 1913.
Ms. Boardman explains the techniques employed when drawing, painting and hanging such a large canvas. The team of artists used specially commissioned landscape photographs by William Tipton to orient themselves to the battlefield from the perspective of the famous Copse of Trees, chosen focal point for the painting. Senior Federal officers such as Winfield Hancock, Abner Doubleday, and Alexander Webb were consulted for details of the battlefield events. The artists inspected Civil War artifacts to correctly portray the uniforms, weapons, wagons of the battle (there are a number of inaccuracies; only one type of cannon is portrayed in all of the batteries, and some soldiers are wearing uniforms that look suspiciously like French Army uniforms of the eighteen-eighties). Many corrections were made to the Cycloramas over the years, some as a result of the complaints of veterans viewing the exhibit, and some to add to local interest in a particular exhibition (Eg., some changes were made during a Boston exhibit to highlight Massachusetts officers portrayed in the painting).
The National Park Service “Mission 66” initiative, to provide a new building for the cyclorama, and the successful work of Olin Conservation, Inc. to painstakingly clean, restore/repair, and rehang the cyclorama is a fascinating part of the book. Yet the highlight of the book for me are the ten chapters devoted to scene by scene explanation of the events portrayed in the cyclorama, highlighting the personalities, buildings, units, equipment and terrain features of The Battle of Gettysburg.
The brilliant work of Philippoteaux’s team and the Olin renovators is lovingly illustrated with high-quality photos and thorough explanations. While the cyclorama is not a perfectly accurate portrayal of the fighting at Bloody Angle, this book is a marvelous review of a great work of art that has entered the fundamental layer of the public’s knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg. I strongly recommend it to you.
David Lady is a native of Washington, D. C., and grew-up in northern Virginia during the Civil War Centennial. His branch of the Lady family lived in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia during the Civil War and his forebears served on both sides of this war. David graduated from Wittenberg University in Springfield OH with a degree in History. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1974, and during his thirty-three year military career served as an Armor and Cavalry soldier and later as the Command Sergeant Major (CSM) of the U. S. Army Armor Center, the U. S. Army Europe, and the U. S. Army Strategic Command. He and his wife Ellen reside in Huntsville, and he is employed on Redstone Arsenal with the U. S. Army Strategic Command. He serves on our Board of Directors as membership chairman, and is an enthusiastic participant in the Little Round Table and the Round Table Brigade.