Capturing Gettysburg

burgBy Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal

Harrisburg, Pa.

Say “Civil War” and “Pennsylvania,” and Gettysburg immediately comes to mind. Visitors to that site know the cyclorama by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux, a massive work that measures 27 feet high and 359 feet in circumference and currently hangs in the new visitor’s center near the battlefield. Now, just 40 miles north of Gettysburg, “Objects of Valor: Commemorating the Civil War in Pennsylvania,” a new permanent exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, is bringing the war and its most famous battle alive through a rotating selection of smaller but still compelling objects from its collections.

Shown on the walls of the large, one-room gallery and in nine display cases are the battle flags, pistols, swords, uniforms and cannon balls one would expect to find in any battlefield retrospective. Among the more impressive pieces now on display is a regimental drum from the Logan Guards, a Lewistown, Pa., unit that was one of the first to answer President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms. Also shown are the Colt revolvers presented to Gen. Joseph Knipe by his Seventh Cavalry staff, resplendent with nickel-plated frames, gilded cylinders and ivory grips; a chair from Union Gen. George Meade’s Gettysburg headquarters; the musket used by 69-year-old civilian John L. Burns to help hold off the early Confederate advances; and a kepi with a bullet hole in it worn by Private George W. Linn.

But the centerpiece of “Objects of Valor” is Peter F. Rothermel’s “Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge,” which measures 16 feet high and 32 feet wide, and is the largest depiction of the battle on one canvas. It took Rothermel three years of research and 18 months of painting to complete the work, which was commissioned by the commonwealth for $25,000 in 1867 and debuted at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music on Dec. 20, 1870.

About 10 yards in front of the painting is an interactive kiosk that explains the painting’s history and allows visitors to focus in on certain historically important aspects of the battle scene. For instance, the kiosk explains that Rothermel’s deliberate perspective puts the viewer 125 yards from the copse of trees just below Cemetery Ridge in an area of the battle line known as “the Angle,” a jog in the stone wall defended by the Philadelphia Brigade. The viewer is facing the Union line, a perspective that Rothermel thought was important in depicting the Union’s repulse of Confederate forces.

The artist did painstaking research on the battle, interviewing participants of high and low rank, and some of his early sketches and maps are on display nearby. While he went out of his way to get faces and uniforms right, he decided to include critical leaders and events that happened over several days rather than to capture a single moment. So, for example, he included Gen. Meade, who was not at the scene of the battle, and action on Little Round Top that had actually taken place the day before Pickett’s Charge.

A year after the painting was completed, the work traveled to Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago, where it was damaged in the Great Chicago Fire. It was carried back to Pittsburgh, where Rothermel had it relined, and was later shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Afterward it hung in Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Executive Building in Harrisburg in 1894. It found its current home in 1964.

Hanging alongside Rothermel’s signature piece are four 5½-by-3-foot companion pieces by the artist, all part of that $25,000 commission and painted from 1871 to 1872.

“Charge of the Louisiana Tigers and Repulse” takes place at sunset on the second day of the battle and shows the Fifth Maine Battery raking the left flank of the Confederate assault on East Cemetery Hill. “Pennsylvania Reserves at Plum Run” takes place on the evening of the second day and depicts the counterattack into the “Valley of Death” below Little Round Top. “Battle of the First Day and Death of Reynolds” shows Union Gen. John Reynolds in the foreground on a stretcher, dying from the head wound he suffered at Herbst Wood, a geographic feature in the center of the painting that was crucial in delaying the Confederate advance. And “Repulse of General Johnson’s Division by General Geary’s White Star Division” depicts the seven-hour battle for Culp’s Hill, a piece of strategic high ground that was basically the last thrust by the Confederate forces against the Union right flank. Gen. Geary is on the right side of the painting under the White Star flag, amid his troops, who stretch from the bottom of the canvas and up the right side. Across the top two thirds of the painting is the futile advance by the Confederate forces.

One final work, Rothermel’s “Charge of Pennsylvania Reserves in Plum Run,” was commissioned by the adjutant general’s office in 1881. It is larger than the other four paintings and shows the battle from behind the Union lines. Several Union officers are depicted on horseback and on foot, pointing their swords—and their men—toward the Confederate lines, which are blurry in the distance, partially obscured by smoke but visible enough to show that the Union forces are decimating the Confederates.

An impressive work in an impressive show.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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