Vanished Heritage

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Where have all the Civil War cycloramas gone? Most burned up in fires, suffered irreparable water damage during prolonged storage, were discarded by their exhibitors, or just vanished from history once the vogue for these giant attractions faded.

The notable exception is the Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama , created in Milwaukee by William Wehner and the American Panorama Company in 1885 and 1886. Scrupulously researched and expertly painted by a team of 12 artists, the canvas depicts the moment when Maj. Gen. John A. Logan rallied Union troops to retake a half-built brick plantation house outside town on July 22, 1864. The Cyclorama, now 358 by 42 feet, made its debut in Minneapolis; it did not arrive in Atlanta until 1892. There, though it sees the battle from a Union perspective, it has remained a popular tourist attraction ever since—its warm reception probably made possible by the fact that Gen. William T. Sherman appears only in the distance.

Atlanta’s original Cyclorama—now lost—was called Battle Above the Clouds and showed the fight for Lookout Mountain. Created in Berlin by the team of Eugene Bracht, Karl Roechling, and George Koch, it was promoted as “the greatest battle painting in the world” when it arrived in the United States and was assessed a $10,000 customs duty. No one knows what became of it.

A similar mysterious fate awaited the panorama of the Battle of Shiloh, painted in the 1880s, but long since lost. All that is left are a series of black-and-white photographs made while the picture was still on view and an advertising chromolithograph that showed a section of the panorama—focusing on a McCormick harvester machine that, the print shamelessly claimed, proved its durability by surviving the battle.

About other Civil War cycloramas and panoramas even less is known. The reputed Monitor and Merrimack Cyclorama has vanished without a trace. Only one panel survives—at the Ohio Historical Society—of an Andrews’ Raiders panorama created in the 1870s by one William Knight. And the National Museum of American History owns, but does not display, a 32-panel Army of the Cumberland “panorama” by William DeLaney Travis. But it was not a painting-in-the-round. Rather, it was originally displayed to audiences in a theater, by being hand-cranked across the stage on two huge spools.

Surprisingly, a pre-war cyclorama—John Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles —is alive and well, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Unveiled in New York in 1819, the 165-by-12-foot canvas is the second-oldest extant panoramic painting in the world. Once exhibited at a special “rotunda” structure near City Hall, it was bequeathed by the artist’s family to the Senate House Association in Vanderlyn’s hometown of Kingston, New York, and transferred to the Met in 1952. Since 1983 its surviving elements have been on view in a special gallery in the museum’s American Wing.

Have any other Civil War cycloramas survived somewhere, somehow? For years most experts thought not, since they were almost impossible to store and would have required pre-emptive restoration to avoid crumbling. Besides, they would surely be difficult to miss, even packed away in crates.

But the experts were wrong. As far back as the 1930s, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, artist named Joseph Wallace King got word that one of the three missing Philippoteaux Gettysburg Cycloramas had survived. An obsession took root, and King spent years tracking rumors about the painting. Finally, in 1965, he chased it to Chicago, only to learn that the warehouse where it lay in storage had burned. He persevered, found a new warehouse on the site, prowled through it, and, when he discovered a smoke-stained wall in the back, somehow persuaded the owner to let him break through. Sure enough, behind the wall were 14 great canvas rolls.

The triumphant King bought the painting from the warehouse owner’s son and brought it back to Winston-Salem. He unrolled it on the football field in Bowman Gray Stadium; the goalposts had to be uprooted to accommodate this unveiling: the painting proved to be 376 feet long, and 22 feet high. When King died in 1996, he left the cyclorama to Wake Forest University, where it remains in storage, awaiting a buyer who can give it the restoration and display it deserves.

—H.H.