The Great Illusion of Gettysburg

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How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War

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Paul Philippoteaux/National Park Service

"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.

For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.  

Cyloramas -- paintings wrapped around the interior of a rotunda, their foregrounds filled with props to create an impression of depth -- were a familiar sight in Europe throughout the 19th century. Philippoteaux, a French artist, had already painted a number of European battles when he was hired by a consortium of Chicago investors to apply his magic to Gettysburg. He spent months researching the clash and interviewing survivors, and even commissioned photographs of the landscape, before embarking upon the greatest challenge of his career. A team of artists labored for months in Brussels. The finished painting, unveiled in Chicago in 1883, weighed six tons and cost the investors $200,000. The same team produced three other versions, with only minor alterations, for display in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Four hundred feet long. Fifty feet high. It was art on an astonishing scale. All four versions were housed in massive, purpose-built rotundas. In Boston, for example, visitors walked through a grand crenelated archway, paid for their tickets, and proceeded along a dark winding passage toward the viewing platform. They ascended a winding staircase to another time and place. "The impression upon the beholder as he steps upon this platform," one reviewer wrote, "is one of mingled astonishment and awe."

July 3, 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg rages on for a third day. From just behind Cemetery Ridge, visitors watched Pickett's Charge crash against the Union lines. There, in the distance! General Lee and his staff. Much closer, an artillery caisson explodes. All around, soldiers crouch, charge, level rifles, bare bayonets, fight, die.

A dozen different twists heightened the illusion. Drapes hung over the platform from the ceiling, limiting and directing the view and leaving the viewers shrouded in shadows. The indirect lighting shone most brightly on the top of the canvas, illuminating the sky in brilliant blue. The canvas bowed outward by a foot in the middle, receding as it approached the ground and horizon. Tinsel lent a convincing gleam to the bayonets and buckles in the painting.

What most astonished observers, though, was the diorama, which began near the edge of the platform and ended at the painting, 45 feet away. Hundreds of cartloads of earth were covered in sod and studded with vegetation, then topped with the detritus of the battlefield. Shoes, canteens, fences, walls, corpses: near the canvas, these props were cunningly arranged to blend seamlessly into the painting. Two wooden poles, painted on the canvas, met a third leaned against it to form a tripod. A dirt road ran out into the diorama. A stretcher borne by two men, one painted and the other formed of boards, had its poles inserted through holes in the painting. "So perfect is the illusion," as the Boston Advertiser voiced the common sentiment, "that it is impossible to tell where reality ends and the painting begins."

Cycloramas proved capable of confounding even the most sophisticated of observers. In New York, a nighttime burglary of the cyclorama building brought out the police, who spent 30 minutes searching fruitlessly for the suspects. At last, one officer shouted in triumph, "I got him! I got him!" But he had been fooled by the illusion; the figure he clutched was a dummy representing a dead soldier, amid the debris strewn about the foreground. He "felt very bad," the Times reported, "until another officer made the same mistake."

Success brought flattery, in its sincerest form. Enterprising promoters commissioned their own Gettysburg cycloramas. Some were small, cheap imitations, sharing little more than a name with Philippoteaux's four original paintings. Most, though, were credible facsimiles. Their owners hired artists away from Philippoteaux. A few likely worked from stolen sketches, but high-quality photographs, sold as souvenirs, were also readily available. These pirated works were known as "buckeyes," a pejorative commonly applied to things of inferior quality and, in the art world, used for painters and their works aimed at the commercial market. Some of the better buckeyes were passed off as Philippoteaux's own work. There were at least a dozen buckeyes of Gettysburg, and perhaps twice that number, in circulation. These pirated versions toured widely, often stopping at state fairs and exhibitions. It is entirely plausible that Philippoteaux's vision found its largest audience among these fairgoers, lining up to see an imitation of an illusion.

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 $100,000 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.
                                                     *             *           *

No other American cyclorama ever came close to matching the popularity of Philippoteaux's Gettysburg. It had an educational purpose and also offered a voyeuristic thrill. But it gained its decisive edge from its particular subject, Pickett's Charge. More than 12,000 Confederates advanced toward the Union lines in a last, desperate assault on the battle's third day. Philippoteaux captured the moment they reached the top of the ridge. The two armies grappled furiously, but the Union held, and more than half the Confederates fell as casualties. The battle was over. The canvas showed the "fierce onslaught which fixed the nation's destiny," as one reviewer put it.
 
Just like its tinfoil cannon, though, the cyclorama's presentation of Pickett's Charge was a convincing illusion that could not sustain closer scrutiny. Philippoteaux took his cue from the work of John Bachelder, a painter and lithographer who had embedded himself with the Union army. Bachelder wanted to make the war's decisive moment the subject of his greatest work, an ambition that required him to identify a single iconic scene. After Gettysburg, he seized upon Pickett's Charge, famously labeling the point at which the Confederates were driven back "the high water mark of the rebellion."

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.

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