The Virtual Cyclorama

Before there was virtual reality, before there were motion pictures, before there was any sort of modern media interactivity, there was the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama. This massive painting, commemorating the bloody final Confederate assault of July 3, 1863, was first exhibited 20 years after this pivotal battle of the American Civil War.

Following a $13 million restoration completed in 2008, the 42-foot high painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux—with its perimeter an immense 377 feet—was installed in a purpose-built structure at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, which describes the work as “longer than a football field and higher than a four-story building.”

On this website we’ve created a virtual-reality version of the Cyclorama to take Philippoteaux’s 19th-century painting into the era of modern immersive media.

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Drag in the image above to rotate the cyclorama the full 360 degrees. Click the blue “info” button in the toolbar for more information. Other buttons allow you to zoom in/out, and to enable the full-screen view. A version optimized for a hand-held device is here. If you wish to use a head-mounted display (HMD), such as Google Cardboard or Oculus, click here.

With the assistance of the authors and publisher of the definitive book on the painting, The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas, we have included images, quotations, and a sample chapter from the book to demonstrate its depth of detail. In the book itself, you will find chapters devoted to exploring all the historical figures and locations in the painting.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a decisive episode of the Civil War and a defining moment in American History. The implications of this three-day conflict continue to be debated, celebrated, or lamented 168 years later by a dedicated and meticulous community, some of whom gather regularly, dressed in the Blue or the Gray, for their faithful reenactments of the conflict.

The cyclorama was the IMAX of its day, a 19th-century reach for the edge of sensory overload, designed to dazzle the viewer with its astounding power of visual verisimilitude. Today’s visitors to the Gettysburg Cyclorama may have had their senses sated from exposure to more modern visual presentation technologies—from the television to the Oculus. But the power of this painting in Gettysburg derives not only from its immersive realism, but also from the enduring resonance of its subject matter.