Gettysburg’s Cyclorama French Military Influence

Each year, thousands of people travel to Gettysburg National Military Park. Many will see the film and the Gettysburg Cyclorama before venturing out onto the battlefield. When most people see the Gettysburg Cyclorama, I often wonder if they see the same heavily influenced French military culture that I see? Even the most hardcore Civil War buff, I feel, fails to see that influence. Unless you’re a hardcore living historian who has spent years researching Civil War uniforms and equipment, like I have, you may not see the uniforms and equipment being worn by Union soldiers as that of the Second French Empire.

So let’s start at the beginning, what is a cyclorama? It’s a large painting that is displayed in the round. It often features a foreground that blends in with the scenery of the painting. It was considered as an exhibit, meant for entertainment, where a panoramic view totally surrounds the viewer, giving them a 360 degree view as if he or she was standing in the center inside the painting. This type of artwork has its roots dating back to 1787 when Robert Barker, an Irish painter, wanted to display a painting that captured a moment in time, giving the viewer the feeling that he or she was actually there. Robert Baker created a panoramic scene that eventually became known as a cyclorama. The cyclorama would gain major popularity in the mid to late 19th Century.

The Gettysburg Cyclorama is an oil painting done on canvas, and stands forty-two feet tall and three hundred, and seventy-seven feet in circumference. The Gettysburg Cyclorama that you see on display is number two out of four that the French artist Paul D. Philippoteaux and his team of special artists completed. The Boston painting, commissioned by Charles Willoughby of Chicago, IL for a sum of $50,000 was completed in just over eleven months in 1884. It was first displayed in Boston in late December. It made its way to Gettysburg in 1913 for the 50th reunion of Civil War veterans. Today, it is one of the largest oil paintings on display in North America and is the only one of four that Paul Philippoteaux completed between the years 1883-1886.

The Gettysburg Cyclorama captures the moment of the High Water Mark of Pickett’s Charge, the last major battle that was fought at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The painting, as some visitors will say, is the closest to seeing the ground as it was in 1863. There are no monuments, no highway and no modern buildings. I’ve seen people tear up because of how the painting is displayed, and how they felt they were a part of it. I have also seen people who couldn’t care less about the painting because of what it portrays, war! Either way, the painting has stood the test of time.

How did the cyclorama craze begin here in America? In 1879, Paul Philippoteaux was commissioned to do the Chicago painting of Pickett’s Charge. In 1882, he arrived in the United States and conducted a great deal of research and interviews. He visited Gettysburg and hired a local photographer, William Tipton to take a series of photographs of the landscape. The artist took all of his research back to Europe and began working on the concept. The Chicago version of the Gettysburg Cyclorama painting was unveiled and opened to the public in 1883. By December of 1884, the Boston painting opened. There would be two others that came after the Boston version debuted, the New York and Philadelphia paintings. Over time, the Boston version would be the sole survivor.

Let’s take a closer look at the French Military influence that we see in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Let’s begin with the artillery you see in the Gettysburg Cyclorama.

cyclorama (2).jpg
The First Rhode Island Artillery, Battery A (Arnold’s Battery) was equipped with 3-inch Ordinance Rifles and not Parrott rifles as seen in the painting. These men are also using some weird type of drill that looks similar to the reduced numbers drill.
cyclorama (6)
This Battery wagon (Battery A, 1st R. I.) should not be this close to the fighting. They were further back and ready to make repairs in the field as needed.
cyclorama (21).jpg
I love how the lid on the limber chest opens the wrong way, towards the battery. They should open from behind with the top of the lid facing towards to the guns.
cyclorama (5).jpg
Members of the 13th New York Artillery. Notice the kepi that are being worn instead of the Federal regulated forage cap. Also, notice the red should-straps, and red tape on the sleeves with three buttons. Some of the artillerymen have a solid red cuff on their sleeves rather than the tape you see in this photograph. These jackets are not of the Federal Government issue, but rather they are uniforms of the Second French Empire. I do like the mixture of slouch hats that the artist places into the painting.
cyclorama.jpg
Here is a better photograph of a NCO wearing the French tunic. He is also wearing some type of cartridge box suspended by a buff leather strap. The buff belt holds a LeMat revolver inside of a brown leather holster.
cyclorama (3).jpg
Notice the red shoulder-strap and blue collar. This is what I would call a blooper.
cyclorama (15)
The New York State Militia Guidon. This is to represent the 13th New York Artillery coming to the front. This guidon is incorrect. The 13th New York Artillery was never part of the New York State Militia. In fact, in 1862, the New York State Militia was changed to the New York State National Guard.
cyclorama (20).jpg
Again, notice the red tape located at the cuff and the white haversack on the guy located left. The white haversack is part of the French military issue to its army. Now look at the guy on the right who is wounded. Notice there is a lack of a cuff, but retains his red collar and shoulder-strap.
cyclorama (8)
I love the detail of this Union artillery officer. Notice his shoulder-strap signifying he has rank. He still retains the red collar for his branch of service, the artillery. The Union army used shoulder boards for the most part to signify rank. Also, notice the French style kepi which actually would be correct for an officer in the Union army if he choose to wear one.
cyclorama (16)
This is General Henry Hunt, Chief of Artillery. For the most part, he looks good. He has shoulder boards, red sash and saber belt. He even wears a kepi. But notice the French braid on his sleeves. The Union army officers very seldom had these on their jackets. Also, notice the collar. It appears to have some sort of insignia that could be used for his rank or branch of service.
cyclorama (9).jpg
Notice the cartridge box marked with U.S. Also, this is a good closeup of the equipment used for the horses.
cyclorama (17).jpg
This guy appears to be some sort of officer, judging by the red shoulder board. What I life about this guy, is you can see what the French uniform looked liked from the back of the soldier. Again, the cartridge box and saber belt are standard French issue accouterments.

Let’s take a look at the infantry.

cyclorama (1)
The Byrd Brothers. You can see the left brother is wearing a tunic that appears to be an eight button from. You can make out the blue collar and should-straps. The brother on the right, is wearing an officers jacket. You can see the French braid as well as some sort of shoulder board and blue collar.
cyclorama (18)
I like this picture because of the soldier on the left. He is very large compare to the normal size soldier.
cyclorama (4).jpg
This is a great view of the hard pack knapsack and how the blanket was attached. You can also see the mess kits, cartridge box, scabbard and yes, the haversack. All standard French issue.
cyclorama (7).jpg
Various blanket rolls and accouterments.
cyclorama (19)
This is a good close up of the infantry tunic. Notice the collar, shoulder straps and cuffs. The eight button front along with French blue trousers and white shirt. You can also see a close up of the canteen, cap pouch and belt with buckle.
cyclorama (11)
Another close up of the cap pouch and haversack and the tunic.
cyclorama (13).jpg
Close up of the top of the tunic.
cyclorama (14).jpg
The knapsack, blanket and mess tin.

Odds and ends.

cyclorama (10)
The usage of pack horses.
cyclorama (22).jpg
The usage of horses and hospital saddles to remove wounded men. This also shows the usage of African Americans as contractors in the military.
cyclorama (12).jpg
The usage of wagons moving with Pickett’s men during the charge. Wagons were parked well west and north, northeast of the battlefield. Read the Retreat from Gettysburg related articles that I have online.