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Do We Really Need To Spend A Lot Of Time, Effort, And Money Saving This Big Old Painting?

June 2024
3min read

The Historians Speak

Not only tourists and battlefield aficionados but also the leading scholars of the Civil War have found inspiration in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. A new survey of prominent military historians shows some disagreement about how the painting should be displayed—but unanimity about its value to America’s past and future.
—H.H.

Gary W. Gallagher

The Gettysburg Cyclorama, when fully restored, will allow modern viewers to see the massive painting in the same setting as those who saw it in the late nineteenth century. It will form an invaluable bridge between the generation of Americans who lived through the conflict and those who flock to Gettysburg today in search of a direct connection to a gripping episode in our national past. (Gallagher’s many Civil War books include Three Days at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership .)

Stephen W. Sears

In an effort to distill into mere words the struggle at Gettysburg, I’m drawn repeatedly to the Cyclorama for inspiration. Walk the battlefield, ponder the Cyclorama to translate to your senses what you’ve just seen, and you’ll begin to glimpse the truth about what happened there in July 1863. (Sears’s most recent book is Gettysburg .)

James M. McPherson

Millions of people have viewed the Gettysburg Cyclorama since its initial exhibit more than a century ago. The painting not only depicts the dramatic climax of the Pickett-Pettigrew assault but also reflects the way in which Americans of the late nineteenth century understood the battle, which in turn has shaped our memory and understanding right down to the present. (McPherson’s most recent book is Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg .)

Gabor Boritt

Wherever you go in the United States or abroad, Gettysburg evokes the memory of the battle that people believe determined the fate of this country and so that of the globe. How we remember this central moment of American history is almost as important as what it accomplished. The new birth of the Cyclorama painting not only makes sure that we shall know how the Civil War looked to people long ago but will also allow that vision to influence the American future. (Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, is the author of the forthcoming The Gettysburg Gospel .)

Craig L. Symonds

The Cyclorama (like its cousin in Atlanta) not only depicts history but in its own way is history, and whether it remains at its present location or is moved to another, perhaps less intrusive site, it is worth saving because it allows us to understand and appreciate how earlier generations strove to see and, in seeing, to understand. (Symonds is the author of the American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg .)

William C. Davis

The Cyclorama is a marvelous cultural mirror of how the postwar generation wished to remember the battle and the war. More than that, it is one of the very few surviving artifacts of a medium of entertainment that once brought the outside world to American communities in a clever blend of art, entrepreneurialism, marketing, and history. Until the advent of motion pictures, cycloramas were the most dynamic and dramatic available representation of history. (Davis’s books include Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America .)

John Y. Simon

After the Battle of Gettysburg concluded with the withdrawal of Lee’s army, Americans began to contend for intellectual possession of the field. The Cyclorama eventually limped into Gettysburg for nearly a century of mistreatment. This tattered canvas preserves a memory of how Americans once imagined the battle. Historians should argue for the preservation and restoration of both the canvas and the artistically superior building that houses it. (Simon is the editor of the multivolume Papers of Ulysses S. Grant .)

John F. Marszalek

The Cyclorama is an expression of an earlier age’s determination to preserve an idea, in as detailed a form as possible, of a major event in its recent past. It shows as dramatically as anything could how important the Civil War was to the generations that immediately followed it. This masterpiece can continue to serve as a powerful indication to twenty-first-century people of just how significant the war that produced “a new birth of freedom” continues to be to Americans. (Marszalek’s latest book is Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck .)

Glenn LaFantasie

The Cyclorama makes us feel we’re standing in the middle of Pickett’s Charge. When we have had our fill of war, we can extricate ourselves from the high-water mark unscathed. But the images linger. And then we realize that this grand painting has done what art is supposed to do: It has fired our imagination and left us not so unscathed as we thought. For as long as it survives, the Cyclorama will help us appreciate the human ordeal of the Civil War. (LaFantasie’s books include Twilight at Little Round Top: July 2, 1863—The Tide Turns at Gettysburg .)

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