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.