(Originally published in Gettysburg Times, March 15, 2013)
Wednesday, as I write these words, the Cyclorama – the circular enclosure that once housed a 359-foot wrap-around panoramic painting of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg – is nearly demolished. Housed in a circular building, the artwork created by French artist Paul Philippoteaux in the late 1800s, offered viewers a virtual feeling of the famous battle. (Click the pix for larger views before and after.)
The painting, which had lived in the distinctive building since 1962, has been restored and, in 2008, moved to a new home in the new Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center in 2008.
A 307-foot observation tower, a landmark that had grown out of the trees for many years, was taken down with explosions timed to cannon fire, July 4, 2000. I heard later tee-shirts were sold proclaiming the tower to be “The final casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg.” I was working as a reporter that day, and by the time I heard about the tee-shirts, it was too late to find one.
I wasn’t living here when the now nearly-gone Cyclorama was created, but I’m a little sad it’s going. At any rate, it wasn’t “the last casualty” of the historic battle. Its demolition was part of a program intended to return the battlefield to its July 1863 appearance. The old visitor center also has been removed from the battlefield – a new one has been built on the site of the removed observation tower. Trees have been cleared from some areas and new ones planted elsewhere. Fences have been replaced.
I’m a bit of a history packrat. My wife will vouch for that. I cry sometimes when I get into cleaning out the garage and discover treasures I don’t want to throw away. I have, for instance, a few license plates in a box. One says “TSE COMM,” the name of a small business at which I tried my hand, until I decided it wasn’t something I was meant to do.
Those plates remind me of two I no longer possess. My first wife was the source of the plates on one of our vehicles for many years: “I WUV OO,” they proclaimed. The other vehicle carried “WUV OO 2.”
I haven’t seen for awhile the plate from Alaska that adorned the Dodge van I ordered, “The way it was” depends a lot on how far back one looks.to be picked up in Detroit, the winter we ended a two and-a-half-year tour on Adak Island.
I may nail the plates I have to the wall in my studio, to join the collection of worthless artifacts already there – worthless except for the stories of which they remind me.
Another time, another place, and a hike into the woods with a group trying to block a housing development and thereby, they said (probably accurately), save a downslope wetland. The forest and the wetland below it was pristine, and deserved protection, they said.
Until we came to a rock wall wending its way through the trees. Or, better said, a rock wall surrounded by a century or more of tree growth. “The way it was” depends a lot on how far back one looks.
History is, to many of us, relative. A college professor told me 50 years is about the limit of human memory. Anything older than that had “always been that way.” As those young conservationists proved, nothing has “always been that way.”
And while I do have a place deep inside me for history, I’m not much of a “celebrate war” guy. I think we should focus more on the causes of the bloodshed, and on ways to avoid repeating the deaths and destruction. If it were possible, I would plant waxen bodies on the ground, as closely as possible to the way they lay, bloody and dead, after Pickett’s Charge.
I’d like to think the efforts and expense of those restoring the battleground to its appearance in the days that gave it worldwide fame could incite visitors’ imaginations to see the bodies, and think of why the battle was fought in the first place.