149 years ago today...
The Gettysburg Cyclorama is an epic, 360-degree circular oil-on-canvas painting that depicts the third day's battle known as "Pickett's Charge." It was created by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and originally debuted in 1884. One of the last surviving cycloramas in the United States, the curved-panel painting is a marvel of both art and science. Standing in the center, visitors are completely surrounded by a breath-taking, panoramic view that depicts, in meticulous detail, the triumphs and tragedies of July 3rd, 1863. The following panels were scanned from a postcard book that I purchased as a souvenir in 1978. View entire Cyclorama
PANEL 1: Federal infantry and artillery hurry toward the fighting at The Angle. Major General W.S. Hancock is shown with his staff at the left center and beyond, at the top of the picture, is Little Round Top.
PANEL 2: Pickett's Charge reached its climax when the Confederates, dressed in brown, followed their red battle flags into the Union line at the Copse of Trees. These trees seen in the upper left, mark the Union center, the objective of Pickett's Charge. Confederate General Armistead falls mortally wounded to the right of the flags.
PANEL 3: Pickett's Charge reaches its climax at The Angle. Union troops, in the foreground, meet the advancing Confederates and hurl them back. The Codori buildings may been seen at the top of the card.
PANEL 4: The Angle, in the foreground, and the field of Pickett's Charge. The Confederates, beyond the exploding ammunition chest and advancing across the fields, have come from Seminary Ridge marked by the trees and smoke in the background.
PANEL 5: Tradition holds that French artist, Paul Philippoteaux, identified himself with the Cyclorama by portraying himself as the Union officer standing beneath the tree to the right. He watches Pettigrew's Division advancing from Seminary Ridge.
PANEL 6: The stone wall north of The Angle and the Bryan barn. Wounded are being evacuated on mules.
PANEL 7: Arnold's Rhode Island Battery in action north of The Angle and Copse of Trees.
PANEL 8: Hospital. A surgeon amputates the leg of a wounded man in the shed on the right.
PANEL 9: A New York battery gallops towards the fighting near the Copse of Trees.
PANEL 10: Major General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, as shown with his staff on the right at the edge of the Wheatfield. Meade's Chief of Artillery, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, watches the fighting in The Angle from the gray horse in the foreground.
Battlefield before bike trail
Today I sent a letter to the Editor at The Free Lance-Star newspaper defending the National Park Service’s recent decision to add a top layer of pea-gravel to Lee’s Drive. This was mainly done to help curb speeding and it also improved the historical appearance of the park. Many local cyclists, joggers and stroller moms have voiced their displeasure with the new road surface. I believe their opinions are somewhat misguided as they tend to look at these Civil War Battlefields as recreational parks and forget what their real purpose is. These are not bike trails or nature preserves and although both the NPS and I support the idea of locals enjoying the battlefield, their opinions should not dictate how the park is preserved or maintained. They are 'guests' who are simply taking advantage of a convenient exercise location on a road less traveled. Stay tuned...
UPDATE 6/11: My letter (see transcript below) ran in today's issue of The Free Lance Star. I am already getting emails from both sides of the argument.
Let us not forget what Lee Drive is all about
Recently, some in our community have taken the National Park Service to task for its decision to resurface Lee Drive using gravel.
The goal, as Park Superintendent Russ Smith describes it, is to calm traffic through the Fredericksburg Battlefield.
Given that Lee Drive currently holds claim to roughly half of all the speeding tickets the Park Service hands out, this seems an ideal solution indeed.
Many of those opposed to the new gravel surface use the road chiefly to jog, bike, and the like.
As a local battlefield guide specializing in wheelchair tours, I feel that it is important for us to remember that Lee Drive is the main thoroughfare of a Civil War Battlefield, not simply another recreational park or nature preserve.
The primary purpose of Lee Drive is not to provide local residents with a place to exercise, nor to serve as a convenient shortcut during rush-hour traffic.
Its purpose, like that of the rest of the battlefield's roads, is to allow visitors access to the multiple historic sites that dot the landscape of this hallowed ground where thousands of men died.
While it is great that residents utilize Lee Drive for recreational purposes, such purposes should not dictate how the road is maintained. The recent resurfacing not only serves as an improved safety factor, but also enhances the aesthetic appearance of the park. This benefits everyone.
Fredericksburg is no ordinary place, and our battlefield is no ordinary park. I commend the Park Service and Superintendent Smith for their skillful stewardship of this one-of-a-kind natural and historic treasure and am grateful for the newly revamped road that runs through it.
I also ask those who question the resurfacing to keep in mind why Lee Drive is there at all.
The writer is owner, All-Access Battlefield Tours.
Update: The Historians Project
Some folks have emailed inquiring about the status of The Historians Project. For those of you who are unfamiliar with THP, here is a little background… The intent of The Historians Project is to bring together historians, who are also musicians, to raise awareness, and hopefully some money, for Civil War battlefield preservation. The end-game is to assemble a band made up of semi-professionals in order to perform a show that features history and music. All proceeds will go directly to the organizations that fight to save these hallowed grounds and the event will also provide them with an opportunity to address the public in order to spread awareness for their cause.
Although this is being done in fun and for charity, we also want serious participants who can play. I already have a very talented vocalist tentatively signed on (a university historian and recording artist), but need the roles of guitar, bass and possibly keys. Of course just like with a book, or a lecture, preparation means everything. No one is going to get back up in front of a crowd and petition for funds without being able to entertain. I have been practicing daily in order to get my chops back, but am nowhere near where I want to be. Our singer is about to release a new album with his own band and he won’t be able to dedicate time to a side-project until the band is assembled.
So at this point, THP is merely a vision. The process of forming an ensemble, defining a rehearsal schedule, and producing a set takes time so I can’t give you a specific timeline for all of this to come to fruition. I anticipate that this venture is still many months away from lifting off. I can say for sure is that it will ONLY happen if it’s going to be good. There is nothing worse than watching a bunch of middle-aged adults fail miserably at playing rock star. This project is NOT about forming a bar band. It's about giving folks an opportunity to share their musical talents with others while raising money and awareness for something greater than themselves.
If you are interested in playing in The Historians, please send me an email along with an audio or video sample for audition purposes. If you know of anyone else who might be interested, please pass along this post. *Serious inquiries only.
Photograph by John Cummings III
Last night’s talk at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable couldn’t have gone better. They had a record crowd for the month of May and I could not have asked for a better audience. It was a real thrill for me to meet folks like Waite Rawles III and John Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy and Brent Morgan from the Virginia Genealogical Society. Thanks to this event, I also have a couple tentative talks scheduled for the Sons of the American Revolution. My presentation was titled “The Battle of Spotsylvania: In Their Words” and it focused on the firsthand experiences of Confederate soldiers at Spotsylvania. Here are the transcripts:
Thank you. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is a real thrill for me to be here tonight. The Richmond Civil War Roundtable is among the most prestigious in the country and to be invited here as your guest speaker is a real privilege indeed. I am very fortunate in my work as I get to do a lot of talks, on a lot of topics, and when we were discussing my theme for this evening we finally settled on The Battle of Spotsylvania, or more specifically, the day-to-day campaign experiences of the soldiers who were both engaged and encamped there.
I wanted to take that topic one step further tonight and present the Battle of Spotsylvania with the actual words of those who experienced it firsthand. The letters that I will be reading tonight are from the collection that I used in my book titled Campfires at the Crossroads: The Civil War in Spotsylvania County. Most of them were found in the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park archives, and some of the originals are part of the collection at the Museum of the Confederacy.
In an effort to write home, these troops unwittingly recorded their own legacy. In essence, they (being the average soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia) played the vital role of newsman, similar to today’s embedded journalist. If you are interested in this book or any of my books or films, I have information available along with a special discount for anyone who uses these flyers for ordering. I will also be happy to take questions or discuss anything further when I’m done.
My goal tonight is the same that I had with this book, to present an honest depiction of Johnny Reb’s wartime experiences without relying on the “romance and pageantry” that sometimes infiltrates these types of discussions.
Because we all know that it wasn’t always glorious…In fact more often than not, it was anything BUT glorious…For example, this photo, to me, is the antitheses of the glorification of war and sums up everything we could hope to recognize about the courage and sacrifice of the average Civil War soldier. Just imagine this being your son. I have four children, 2 are boys, and I cannot imagine what it was like for parents to see their kids march off to war and return home mutilated. This perspective is why I went from writing books glorifying generals to books about the sacrifice of citizens and soldiers.
As a battlefield tour guide, folks sometimes ask me what sets Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania apart from other hallowed grounds. What makes them special? I remind them that if you visit other battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, or Manassas, you will see giant equestrian statues memorializing the commanders at these engagements. Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Meade, Reynolds…all stone sentinels - all dominating the landscape. But when you visit the fields at Fredericksburg, you will see no such monuments. In fact, the only statue that you will see on the battlefield proper is the Richard Kirkland monument which depicts two common infantrymen. Spotsylvania Battlefield is also vacant of these marquee statues. There are no sword wielding titans.
So despite the fact that the most recognized officers on both sides of the war were present during these battles, it was the contributions of the common soldier that they chose to commemorate. And THAT is what makes our battlefields different. The ‘grunts’ get the credit and it is ‘their story’ that I believe we need to share during this Sesquicentennial.
Now the Confederate Army’s time in Spotsylvania was not limited to this single engagement. You have to remember that this region witnessed four major engagements over the course of the war including the: Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, and the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania in 1864. So there were Confederate troops occupying the area throughout the entire course of the war. And directly across the Rappahannock River, in Stafford County, over 140 thousand Union troops remained stationed. From 1861 to 1865, hundreds of thousands of troops from both sides of the conflict marched through, fought at and camped in the woods and fields of Spotsylvania County and the surrounding area.
The National Park Service christened the region “the Bloodiest Landscape in North America,” stating that over a four-year period more than eighty-five thousand men were wounded and over fifteen thousand were killed. A number of exceptionally significant events also took place in the vicinity, including the first clash between Grant and Lee, as well as the first recorded skirmish between the Southern forces and U.S. Colored Troops.
Spotsylvania was also the site of the infamous death of General John Sedgwick. That is actually the very first marker that you will see upon entering the Battlefield. On May 9, 1864 Sedgwick’s corps (the VI) were probing skirmish lines ahead of the left flank of Confederate defenses and he was directing artillery placements. Confederate sharpshooters were about 1,000 yards away and their shots caused members of his staff and artillerymen to duck for cover. Sedgwick strode around in the open and was quoted as saying, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.”
Although ashamed, his men continued to flinch and he repeated, “I'm ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.” Just seconds later he fell forward, mortally wounded with a bullet hole below his left eye. In this instant of irony, Sedgwick became the highest ranking Union casualty of the war. Tonight however, I plan to focus not on the generals, but rather on a handful of recollections of soldiers who were engaged and encamped at and around The Battle of Spotsylvania….
This battle, (from May 8th to the 21st) also referred to as the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, was the second major battle in Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign. Following the horrific but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, the Federal army disengaged from Lee’s Army and moved to the southeast, attempting advance on Richmond and lure the Confederates into a fight under better conditions than they had experienced at the Wilderness. Grant and Meade’s movements stalled at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 8 and this allowed the Army of Northern Virginia, who were in pursuit, an opportunity to catch up and engage them. The result was a bloody, two-week battle that included multiple combats along the Spotsylvania front.
The Union attack against the Bloody Angle at dawn, May 12-13, captured nearly a division of Lee’s army and came near to cutting the Confederate army in half. Confederate counterattacks plugged the gap, and fighting continued unabated for nearly 20 hours in what may well have been the most ferociously sustained combat of the Civil War. On May 19, a Confederate attempt to turn the Union right flank at Harris Farm was beaten back with severe casualties. Union generals Sedgwick (VI Corps commander) and Rice were killed. Confederate generals Johnson and Steuart were captured and Daniel and Perrin mortally wounded. On May 21, Grant disengaged and continued his advance on Richmond.
Now that’s the overview, but what REALLY happened there? Our first recollection comes to us from Michael F. Rinker, Company F, 136th Virginia Militia, to his parents. This is a longer letter when compared to most and it does an excellent job of describing the typical action witnessed at The Battle of Spotsylvania. It reads:
Camp Near Spotsylvania Court-House Va
Tuesday May the 17th 1864
Dear Father and Mother,
With pleasure I write to you this morning, hoping you may get this in due time. I am well, and hope you are all well. I must ask you to excuse me for not writing sooner, indeed I am ashamed that I have not written ere this. But now I will tell you why I did not write to you sooner than I did.
We have been so busy since we came over here, that indeed this is the first chance that I have had to write. The second day after we arrived here, we commenced fighting and it is not over yet. Father indeed for 5 days we were so busy fighting that we could hardly get time enough to eat our meals.
Today it is 14 days since we commenced fighting and yesterday the cannon and small arms were still at work. But the fight was not real heavy all the time, the hardest fighting was on the 5.6.& 7 and on the 9, 10 & 11 days of this month. During them six days it was awful. There was one continual roar of thunder all the time from the artillery and small arms.
For six days the Battle was kept up, all the time day and night, in the dead hour of midnight, the cannon & musketry was thundering all the time. Column after column the Yankees pushed their men up to our Breastworks and our men were cutting them down as fast as flies.
The dead Yankees are heaped up in piles half as high as a man, in front of our Breastworks, and all around on the Battlefield the dead yanks are lying just as thick as they can be, and none of them buried, they will all rotten on top of the ground.
Now you may know how it is down here. The line of Battle is 15 miles long, and for 4 days the Battle was kept up all along the line. The Yankee loss in killed and wounded is awful. Their loss will not fall short of fifty five hundred in killed and wounded, and their loss in prisoners, will reach ten or twelve thousand.
We have captured 12 or 15 fine pieces of artillery and 6 or 8 thousand small arms. The yanks lost in killed, 2 Major Generals and 3 or 4 Brigadier Generals, and their loss of Officers generally in killed wounded & prisoners is large. Their entire loss is very heavy, and I think it will be larger yet, before the fight is ended.
All the men say that this has been the hardest fight, since the war. It was awful for about 5 days, the cannon just kept one continual roar of thunder, day and night. I su