Cyclorama

The sounds of explosions, flashes of light illuminating puffs of smoke resulting from the firing of cannons, a subtle swell of symphonic music plays in the background as a female voice narrates Pickett’s Charge, all around me … nothing moves … except the tears that begin to slide down my face.  Of all the things that could evoke an emotional response in me, I would never in a million years have named seeing the Cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park. 

Though a history buff for most of my life, my initial fondness for history was elevated to out right fervor by my introduction to the American Civil War through Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels and the movie that inspired it (“Gettysburg” starring Martin Sheen, Sam Elliot, Jeff Daniels, etc.).  In the summer of 5th grade, my passion for all things Civil War began, leading me to read both Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure by Jeff Shaara which tell the story of events preceding and following the battle of Gettysburg covered in Killer Angels.

I began to read some nonfiction about the battle and war then but was more captivated by the historical fiction.  In 6th grade I wrote a story about two boys who, living in Gettysburg near the battlefield, discover a mysterious device that turns out to be a time machine. They are transported back in time to June 30th, 1863 and are ordered by Gen. Buford to deliver a request for reinforcements to Gen. Reynolds.  The boys freak out and jump back in the time machine only to discover that, once back in the present, everything has been changed.  They subsequently learn that by not delivering the message, the Union lost at Gettysburg and the South won the war.  I won’t bore you with anymore details today (my mom thinks  should write the story anew and publish it and make money; needless to say I have yet to follow through with that plan).

Anyway, my point is . . . I know stuff about the Civil War.  I know how bloody and sad it was; I have seen the movie Gettysburg countless times and felt empathy for the characters in it who suffer from being participants in the conflict.  I cried when Kilrain died and felt sorry for Pickett and Lee and the rest after Pickett’s charge . . . Yet because I first saw the film when I was much younger, I didn’t appreciate or process the true horror of war.  I played video games and imagined my armies of action figures and micromachines warring and battling to the death.  I was not like my mother who would cry freely and copiously everytime she watched the movie, always struck to the heart by the great tragedy of good men fighting good men and lives being ruined by war.

I also loved to visit and walk (and run and climb on boulders and charge through fields) at the battlefield.  I adored the electric map which showed the movement of battle lines throughout the course of the three day battle on a giant map that was sculpted to show the terrain of the battlefield.  A video game called “Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!” taught me a great deal about battlefield tactics of the era as well as the importance of terrain (both in general and the specific terrain of Gettysburg).  I never went to look at the Cyclorama, a 360 degree, 40 foot tall painting housed in a separate building that depicted Pickett’s Charge.  For all the times I went to Gettysburg, I think it peculiar that I never found my way there but not surprising.  At that age a painting of the battle on a circular wall held no interest for me.

A few years ago, I came across an original Mort Kunstler print of Chamberlain’s Charge down Little Round Top at an antique store.  I fell in love and bought it within a few weeks of discovering it.  Chamberlain has long been a hero of mine and the Battle of Little Round Top has always fascinated me.  When my family went today to visit the new Battlefield Visitor Center, and my brother Patrick said that seeing the Cyclorama was part of the ticket package for seeing a movie and touring the museum, I thought I might find it mildly interesting.  What I expected today, and what was always the case as far as I know, was a round painting with maybe a key in the middle of the room indicating the key features of the work.  I expected to walk around it, think “Well that’s nice”, and leave to start touring the museum.  Instead I was one of the last people in our group to leave the room, teary eyed, and speechless.

Facing South: Hancock with his troops and the Round Tops rising behind.

In addition to being painstakingly, and beautifully, detailed, the painting was enhanced by the use of varying lights which created an absolutely real sense of the time of day; the brightness of noon, the overcast greyness created by artillery smoke, and the brilliant oranges and pinks and reds of late evening were simulated in a way that would make you swear the painted sky was changing with the setting sun.

Looking West: Smoke rises in the distance as artillery is fired at you!  Nearby a cloud of smoke and fire erupts as a caisson is hit.

The puffs of smoke you see in the painting flashed during the show as you heard the booming blast of cannons being fired. The way the lights made the smoke light up was spell binding.

The fighting and the wounded.

In the lower foreground, the caisson and surrounding debris you see are actually there in physical reality. The entire painting had rocks, shrubs, cannon caissons, and general debris at the base of it sloping upward to the platform on which the visitors stand. The painting is done to represent what one would have seen from the top of Cemetery Ridge looking in all directions. I felt like I was there, looking at the horrible struggle unfolding around me.

Horror extended into the third dimension.

In the lower foreground, the bodies of the men and horse are part of the painting but the backpack visible in the lower middle is real. The carnage is brought closer to home.

The copse of trees near the high water mark . . . and the bloodiest fighting.

Every sense of my body was being drawn into the scene, except perhaps taste and smell, though imagination might do for them as well. With my senses trapped in the hell of Pickett’s Charge, my soul was there as well . . . and my soul wept causing tears to well up in and fall from my eyes. A completely unanticipated sensation.

I have never been so moved by a painting before . . . but it really wasn’t just a painting, I suppose.  The caretakers and designers of the exhibit worked to put me into the scene, not just have me look upon it.  In that moment, I was there and my heart was slowly breaking for the dead and the dying I saw laying on the ground, my spirit was aching for the living who were actively trying to live and kill for the sake of ideals and duty.  In that moment, I understood what my mother has felt every time she’s watched Pickett’s Charge in the movie . . . sorrow for good men killing and dying at the hands of other good men.  When I reflected with mom over lunch on the power the Cyclorama had over me, she made the comment, “you’ve grown up.”  I guess that is so.  I have learned that war is always tragic, no matter the circumstances.  I have learned that no amount of historic fascinations or heroic stories can make up for the horror of war.

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