The Atlantic's Civil War

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The Atlantic's stellar Civil War issue is online. As excited as I am about the issue, I'm much more excited about our own Yoni (Cynic) Applebaum's historical profile of the cyclorama at Gettysburg.


Because I'm a total downer, I most enjoyed the portion where the great illusion fell out of favor:

But even convincing illusions are eventually dispelled. "We once obtained permission to go behind the scenes in ... The Battle of Gettysburg," a critic later recalled. "After that the illusion was destroyed. Most of the cannon in the foreground were of galvanized iron, the thickness of a sheet of tin, and so were the soldiers and wagons. When we returned to the platform the skill of the deception seemed to us greater than ever, but we were thoroughly disillusioned." Familiarity turned the marvelous mundane, made the breathtaking banal. 

The day of the cyclorama soon passed. In Sioux City, Iowa, a twister lifted the roof off the cyclorama building and destroyed the artwork. Another canvas was sliced into pieces, and sewn together into a tent for a restaurant. Most of the massive paintings, though, met more prosaic ends. They fell victim to leaky roofs and sagging supports, burned, or were left to decompose. By 1888, the proprietors of the Boston Cyclorama decided that Gettysburg had exhausted its appeal, and commissioned General Custer's Last Fight to replace it. More than a dozen workers labored for two weeks to remove the massive canvas; they spent at least a day just rolling it up. It toured for a few years before slipping from public view. 

In 1901, the astonished Boston Globe discovered the painting in a crate on a vacant lot, topped by an improvised roof, "going to rack and ruin." The story of a painting that once cost $200,000 rotting in a box, entombed in "a sort of mausoleum of greatness," captured national attention but provoked no efforts at salvage. The Boston Cyclorama Company dissolved three years later. And there the orphaned painting sat.
Of course, the story doesn't end there.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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