Memories and Memorials

Two Programs

Chicago and Boston Programs

Paul Philippoteaux began his work on the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama in 1881, the last year of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. President Hayes had been edged into the White House by a single electoral vote thanks to the Compromise of 1877, a devil’s bargain in which the Republican president agreed to effectively end Reconstruction by withdrawing federal troops from the states of the former Confederacy. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in 2021, the Compromise marked “…the beginning of segregation, legal discrimination and Jim Crow. It is the original sin of American history in the post-slavery era, our closest brush with fascism so far.”

The Compromise of 1877 no doubt encouraged post-war white supremacy, which the country is still grappling with today. However, the undoing of what was won by the bloody sacrifices of the Civil War had begun more than a decade earlier. The hard-fought freedoms gained not only by the Union army, but also by more than a century of struggle by abolitionists and freedom fighters began to erode just 15 days after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee. On April 14, 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated and Vice President Andrew Johnson was suddenly elevated to the White House.

The legend of Lincoln

President Lincoln, injured, is being carried off the field.

Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, kept nine persons of his household enslaved until a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. As president, Johnson moved for the rapid restoration to the Union of the renegade southern states, without putting in place any effective protection for the liberated Black people who had been long held in bondage. He also reneged on the “forty acres and a mule” promised earlier to some of those newly freed and returned all the seized plantation lands to their former owners. Black Americans, whose lives in brutal chattel servitude provided the financial foundation of the antebellum South, were forced by their limited opportunities to continue their economic role post-Reconstruction as sharecroppers.

Furthermore, targeted penal codes served to continue the economic enslavement in another form; in 1898 Alabama, 73% of the state’s revenue came from renting out the forced labor of Black Americans.

With this historical context, we can imagine how this tragic turn of events might explain why a wounded President Lincoln was metaphorically depicted here in the Cyclorama, being carried off the field of battle. However, with that possible—but improbable—exception, the Cyclorama contains no visual reference as to why the battle was fought. Devoid of any reference to slavery, the major cause of the war, what then was the significance of the painting?

As Yoni Appelbaum wrote in his 2012 Atlantic piece:

“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.”

The social and political climate that greeted the Fall, 1883 opening in Chicago of the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama was far removed from the bloody clashes depicted on its canvas.

There were at that date still more than a million Civil War veterans walking the streets of America, many grievously disfigured. But despite that daily reminder of the war’s toll, it was a very different time. The 400,000 Union veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), as well as the 160,000 members of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) were largely occupied with assuring their pension rights, enjoying their meetings—filled with the raucous revelry of their fellowship—and marching in parades.

For most, animosity had been replaced by reconciliation. This is suggested by the evolution in the design of the Cyclorama programs, as seen above, left. In the later (Boston) program the two former combatants are shown shaking hands, with the Union veteran’s arm on the Confederate’s shoulder in a welcoming gesture.

Veterans of both the Blue and the Gray considered, each from their own perspectives, that they had battled for a noble cause. For the Union veterans, the cause was always some amalgam of “restoring the union” and/or “ending slavery.” For the Confederates, however, the strongly-felt mythology of the “Lost Cause,” came to dominate their memories and their memorials.

The High Water Mark of the Confederacy

Repulse of Longstreet's Assault

“Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault”

When James Walker painted (c. 1864-1870) his Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault at the Battle of Gettysburg (right), he was working under a commission from John B. Bachelder (1825-1894), a cartographer of the battlefield who created the map featured on the “Battle of Gettysburg” section of this website. According to William A. Frassanito, Bachelder was the person who conceived the metaphor, “the high water mark of the Confederacy.”

The “high water mark” is that point on the battlefield where Confederate Gen. Armistead was shot after his breach of the Union line. It was the deepest incursion the Rebel forces were to make, thus the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” However, the phrase was also understood to mark a moment in time, a moment when the outcome of the battle, and the outcome of the Civil War, was determined.

Walker’s panoramic painting, 20 feet long, may be seen as a harbinger of Philippoteaux‘s massive Cyclorama canvas, which was produced a dozen years later. “Longstreet’s Assault” is now better known as “Pickett’s Charge.”

H.B. Hall, Jr. created from the painting an engraving (c. 1876), featured below in a detailed view (LOC). Below the image is the inscription “Historically arranged by John B. Bachelder.” In his Descriptive Key to the painting, Bachelder claims that, “The material for its composition has been furnished him by me and arranged under my direction….”

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Bachelder, fanatical for detail, wove the historical narrative deeply into the painting. He was said to have taken some wounded veterans of the battle, still convalescing in Gettysburg hospitals, on excursions out to the battlefield to probe their recollections of the conflict. Many elements of his research—and the corresponding details from The Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault painting—have become some of the foundational Gettysburg legends, and iconic representations of the Civil War. For one example, note in the engraving above the wounded Confederate Gen. Armistead giving his watch to Union Capt. Bingham after Armistead’s “high water mark” penetration of the Union lines ended when he was shot three times immediately after crossing the wall.

Gen. Reynolds Sign

Gen. Reynolds Marker

The first Gettysburg monument dedicated to a Confederate officer was erected to mark this spot in March of 1885, placed approximately 85 feet inside the stone wall where the Union forces were fleetingly breached. Its inscription is succinct: “Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead C.S.A. fell here July 3, 1863.” Most accounts, however, report Armistead falling much closer to the wall, perhaps no more than five feet inside the Union lines. As with much of Bachelder’s history of the battle, one might paraphrase the famous line from the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ”When the legend becomes fact, raise a monument to the legend.”

In his 1948 novel, Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner conjured this pivotal moment in time, deep in the Southern subconscious:

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…”

"Soldiers' National Mounument - Liberty"
3D model by Heritage Documentation Programs

Bachelder also served as the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association’s Superintendent of Tablets and Legends. In that role, from 1883 to 1887, he was responsible for the placement of monuments and battlefield markers, including the “Here is the Place Where Gen. Reynolds Was Killed” sign, shown on this page (above, right). The “Liberty” statue atop the 1869 Soldiers’ National Monument may be seen at left as a 3D model.

An early and vocal advocate for battlefield protection, Bachelder promoted the significance of the “Copse of Trees,” supposedly the focus of the Confederate assault, and the “Bloody Angle,” the site of the decisive encounter of the Battle of Gettysburg. His vigorous advocacy for this section of the landscape was a significant factor in shaping the perceptions of history—the memories and the memorials.

It seems that this part of the battlefield landscape was little noticed prior to Bachelder’s efforts, and indeed, the assault which came to be known as “Pickett’s Charge” was not initially considered as significant as it would become. As Frassanito put it:

“not until the early 1880s, or roughly two decades after the battle, can it safely be stated that a period of sustained photographic interest in this site had truly commenced.

“I have yet to uncover a single pre-1870 tourist account that even mentioned, directly or indirectly, the specific terrain features we today known as the “Bloody Angle‚” or the “Copse of Trees.” Moreover, it is not uncommon to read early accounts which paid little or virtually no attention to the entire subject of the July 3, 1863, Confederate assault against the Union center.”

According to Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama book co-author Sue Boardman, there is no evidence that Cyclorama painter Paul Philippoteaux, during his weeks in Gettysburg in 1882, ever met or corresponded with John Bachelder. The painter, however, worked closely with local photographer William H. Tipton and local guide and Civil War veteran William D. Holtzworth, both of whom would have been very familiar with Bachelder’s work. It is likely that Philippoteaux’s decision to make Pickett’s Charge the focus of the Cyclorama was due, directly or indirectly, to the influence of John B. Bachelder.

High Water Mark

Tipton’s “High Water Mark of the Rebellion”

While on the raised platform, creating his series of ten photographs for Philippoteaux to deploy as a template for the painting, Tipton made, for his own use, two different stereo pairs. One of these Tipton published, with the title “High Water Mark of the Rebellion.” According to Frassanito, “Undoubtedly, his use of the term ‘High Water Mark’ reflected Bachelder’s influence.” This image may be viewed to the right, and in 3D here.

Frassanito goes on to suggest that the success of the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama in the following years “signaled a fundamental change in the attitude of photographers toward the High Water Mark area….”

However, as Thomas Desjardain wrote,

“While the ‘High Water Mark of the Rebellion’ has served as an enticing label for the spot where soldiers actually decided the Civil War, it is nearly impossible to justify as a statement of fact. As much as Batchelder may have wanted future generations to accept his view of the site’s importance—and he succeeded grandly—it is difficult for any sober historical study of the facts and the circumstances to conclude that William Faulkner’s imagery was accurate that the South was ever so close to independence at that little clump of trees.”

Nevertheless, as the focus of photographers changed, so did that of the audience of those images, advancing the notion of the “High Water Mark,” and its tantalizing suggestion, for Southern audiences, that there was a precipice-like moment in time, one in which the fulcrum of history could have pivoted either way. For some, this moment, depicted by the Cyclorama, provided a tangible visual authority to the illusion of the “Lost Cause.”

The Lost Cause

A complex web of beliefs coalesced into the “Lost Cause” mythology. One, quite reasonably, suggests that it was not through the genius of its generals, nor the valor of its soldiers that the North won the war. Rather, it was its industrial might, along with its numerical advantage on the field, that prevailed. However, most significant to the myth was its insistence that the war was not about slavery; it was a struggle to defend the rights of the Southern states against Northern aggression. In any event, the argument continued, slavery was a benign institution, in which the pagan Africans were introduced to the saving graces of a Christian life.

As Clint Smith put it, “The [Lost Cause] myth was an attempt to recast the Confederacy as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.”

Gens. Longstreet and Lee

Gens. James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee

Another component of the myth canonized Gen. Robert E. Lee as the “ultimate Christian soldier.” This belief has been characterized as a “cult of Lee.” Fundamental to this cult was the conviction that Gen. Lee was a faultless tactician and commander; others were to blame when battles were lost. And no one was more culpable than Gen. James Longstreet at the Battle of Gettysburg, the commander of what was to become known as “Pickett’s Charge,” the focus of the Cyclorama. Longstreet, in the “Lost Cause” narrative, was accused of betrayal and incompetence at Gettysburg due to his alleged delay in the July 2nd attack, and his mismanagement and halfhearted support of the final July 3rd advance on the Union center.

Historians now understand that Longstreet’s role as Gettysburg scapegoat had more to do with his postwar career, in which he became a Republican, and an advocate for engaging with the formerly-enslaved Black citizens in electoral politics. His negative reputation in the South was sealed when, in 1874, a White paramilitary force in New Orleans attempted an armed coup to depose Louisiana’s Republican governor. Longstreet, then in command of the state militia, led his troops, the majority of whom were Black, against the White Leaguers, who were mostly former Confederate soldiers; 38 were to die in the conflict.

As Steven W. Sears wrote in 2005 regarding Longstreet’s reputation in the minds of most Southerners: “it was he and he alone who was responsible for defeat on that [Gettysburg] battlefield. And Gettysburg, as the great turning point of the war, was agreed to have determined the fate of the Confederate States of America.”

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter

“Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”

The “Lost Cause” was certainly not the only Gettysburg myth to emerge from the fog of war and memory. A prime example is the photograph seen here, left: Alexander Gardner’s Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. Modern research indicates that the “sharpshooter’s” body was moved 72 yards from where the soldier fell to create a better photographic composition. The masterful, if inauthentic, composition may have contributed much to the iconic status of the photograph. We discuss this image, and show the variants made prior to the body’s relocation, here. Adding to the mythologizing of this image was Gardner’s whole-cloth invention of a narrative for the “sharpshooter’s” demise, which may be read here.

While journalism may be “the first draft of history,” it is equally true that the work of historians and documentarians must also be reconsidered, and perhaps re-drafted. Ken Burns’ epic 11-hour 1990 PBS series on the Civil War is a case in point; the landmark documentary production had “an outsized effect on how many Americans think about the war, but it’s one that unfortunately lead to a fundamental misunderstanding about slavery and its legacies—a failing that both undergirds and fuels the flames of racism today.” (Keri Leigh Merritt)

The film, daunting in scale and fraught with the social and political import of its subject matter, used artistic license to create a compelling dramatic effect; even the haunting tune repeated throughout the nine episodes, for many Americans a melancholy earworm of the Civil War, was an artifice, a 1982 composition repurposed by the filmmakers.

As the Cyclorama did 107 years earlier, the film downplays the significance of slavery. Historian James Lundberg wrote that the series, “refashioned the history of the Civil War into a semimythical narrative, one of collective sacrifice in the name of freedom and national unity…For all its appeal… ‘The Civil War’ is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns’ sentimental vision and the romance of [Shelby] Foote’s anecdotes.”

Foote, self-described as a “novelist-historian” used his beguiling drawl, heard through 46 minutes of the series, to insist that the cause of the war was “a failure to compromise.”

The 5th episode, “The Universe of Battle,” features many details from the Cyclorama as the narrators describe the carnage at Gettysburg. An excerpt from this episode is included here, right. Ken Burns continues to defend the editorial decisions he made. In 2015 the filmmaker became emotional as he reviewed with amazement his newly-enhanced version of the series. While there were many technical advancements, he changed nothing of substance.

By the turn of the century, the myth of the “Lost Cause” had spread far north of the Mason-Dixon line to become the prevailing narrative for both the North and the South.

Ken Burns' Civil War excerpt.

This excerpt from Ken Burns' "The Civil War" (1990) uses the Cyclorama to advance the narrative.

In many ways, this evolution was dictated by the national priority of reconciliation and the vision of a shared future as a nation. The viewpoint of most of the White citizens of the North might have been: “If the people of the South consider their bloody sacrifices and ultimate defeat in the Civil War more palatable within the veneer of the ‘Lost Cause,’ let them have it, and let’s all get on with our lives.”

McCormick Poster

McCormick Advertising Poster

While White Northerners in 1863 may have disapproved of slavery, many harbored racial prejudices no less deep-seated than those of the average Southerner. At the same time, it must be noted that the rank-and-file Southern combatant of the Civil War was unlikely to be a slaveholder, and was, like his Union adversary, mainly fighting to stay alive and to protect his brethren.

The acceptance of the premises of the “Lost Cause” culminated in the “Dunning School” of historical interpretation. In popular culture, D.W. Griffith’s silent classic, “Birth of a Nation” (1915), which celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, was praised by President Wilson and was the first film to be screened at the White House. The initial wave of Civil War monuments throughout the South, now so contentious, commenced with the passing of “Jim Crow” laws after the turn of the century, followed by a second wave of statuary erected in response to the civil rights initiatives of 1948. In 2021, the University of Virginia’s “Memory Project” was developed to critically consider the politics of memory and, specifically, how history is presented in public spaces.

It is clear that the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, and its focus on the High Water Mark, was but one factor in the acceptance of the “Lost Cause” mythology. As Jeffry Uecker wrote in 2002 about the “buckeye” Gettysburg cyclorama exhibited (1887-1892) in Portland, Oregon:

“Great Civil War panoramas did not create this way of thinking, but they encouraged it. The curious crowds that once gathered on Portland’s Third Avenue stood in line to be awed, entertained, and even educated by a wondrous artistic spectacle. Most of all, they assembled in deference to a tale about their nation — a proud tale about heroes who fought for a noble cause. A gallant tale about a country saved from the brink of destruction. A remarkable tale, with an ambiguously happy ending, in which enemies were reconciled, but where long-needed changes would have to wait to be realized.”