Cycloramas brought an 1863 struggle for a Southern stronghold to life for the postwar generation.
On July 4, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee accepted the surrender of John Pemberton’s Army of Vicks- burg and its namesake town on the Mississippi River. Both armies, even Pemberton’s defeated Rebels, must have felt some sense of relief at the culmination of a harrowing 47-day siege. Blue and Gray alike had been forced to endure Mississippi’s brutal heat in inhospitable trenches, and soldiers and some of the town’s trapped citizenry began eating rats and family pets just to survive.
By the 1880s, with Americans looking back and trying to grasp the drama and horror of the conflict, they queued up to vicariously experience the battle by visiting cycloramas. Civil War Times readers were introduced to one of these long-lost artworks—Panorama of the Land and Naval Battles of Vicksburg— in the July 2006 issue. Additional images and detailed information on how they were displayed have since emerged to help us better understand how the exhibits rose to prominence, as well as why they soon faded into obscurity.
Mounted inside a huge polygonal or round building where they could be viewed from a central platform, cycloramas surrounded spectators with a single artwork. The goal was to convince viewers that they were standing on a battlefield—that everything they saw was three-dimensional—by visually blending a circular canvas that portrayed a continuous combat scene, at the rear, with a circular fringe of vegetation and other three-dimensional terrain features positioned in front of the painting.
Newspapers in Philadelphia and New York called for the creation of a cyclorama of Gettysburg as early as 1867, after an editor traveling in France visited Jean-Charles Lang lois’ depiction of the Battle of Solferino, fought during the Second Italian War of Independence. American interest increased after a cyclorama of the Franco-Prussian War’s Siege of Paris was displayed in three U.S. cities in the late 1870s. Then came cycloramas of the 1781 British surrender at Yorktown and the Franco-Prussian Battle of Montretout, which were mounted in New York in 1882—followed by the first exhibition, in 1883, of a Civil War cyclorama based on the Battle of Gettysburg, created by Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux. At least seven Civil War battles would be depicted in cycloramic form before 1890: Gettysburg, Shiloh, Atlanta, Second Bull Run, Missionary Ridge-Lookout Mountain, Virginia vs. Monitor and Vicksburg.
The first Vicksburg cyclorama was created in the mid- 1880s by Milwaukee-based artists Louis Kindt, a native of Germany, and Thomas Gardner. Working from sketches and notes made by Kindt during a two-week visit to the battlefield, their work was titled General Grant’s Assault on Vicksburg, and it focused on the Union operation of May 22, 1863. It opened to paying audiences in Milwaukee in July 1885. Unfortunately no photographs or detailed diagrams have yet surfaced to document what audiences saw when they visited this cyclorama.
We know far more about the second Vicksburg cyclorama, which opened to paying audiences in New York in May 1886 and was titled Panorama of the Land and Naval Battles of Vicksburg. Joseph Bertrand and Lucien Sergent had painted its canvas in Paris and shipped it to New York, where another artist fabricated and integrated a 3-D foreground for the work. The cyclorama’s managers mounted an exhibition in New York until 1887, when they moved it to San Francisco and reopened it that July. Like Grant’s Assault, the Battles of Vicksburg exhibition depicted the events of May 22, 1863, and was based on sketches and other fieldwork. It formed a huge cylindrical space inside a hexadecagonal building.
The viewing platform at Battles of Vicksburg enabled visitors to survey the faux town, river and fortified suburbs from a point immediately atop a representation of the Railroad Redoubt. A reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle praised the artists’ use of metal-foil overlays to depict the glint of bayonets and the blaze of fires consuming bombarded houses. San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin reported that “a corn-field, constructed from regu lar California corn, runs so nicely into a corn-field which comes down to the edge of the painting, that it can not be separated without an opera-glass.” In his account of ascending to the cyclorama’s viewing platform, a reporter for the New York Sun remarked: “By a circuitous route the visitor finds himself suddenly upon a knoll in the heart of the town….in every direction…stretches out a view…the sunlit and misty hills beyond…the mirror-like surface of the river. ”
Impressive as they clearly were, neither of the Vicksburg cycloramas remained on public view for long. In late 1887, after 21⁄2 years on display, Grant’s Assault closed in Milwaukee. Battles of Vicksburg was dismantled in San Francisco in late 1889 or early 1890, 3½ years after its unveiling in New York. Why was domestic interest in them so short-lived? Some art historians have posited that the chief culprit behind the demise of Civil War cycloramas was motion pictures. But Americans didn’t get to see projected films until after the mid-1890s, more than half a decade after the last of the two Vicksburg artworks ended its run. In fact, the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) notes that three early films were set in Civil War Vicksburg—but not until 1910, 1912 and 1916.
Other factors account for the short-lived interest in the Vicksburg cycloramas. For one, Battles of Vicksburg, the longest-showing and best documented of the pair, drew criticism that alerted prospective audiences to its flaws. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle critic applauded the use of foil to simulate light shining on weapons, for example, but also complained that the artists’ placement of “intervening houses and foliage” limited the portrayal of the May 22, 1863, infantry combats, which had involved thousands of men, to largely just the fighting inside the Railroad Redoubt, where only several dozen contending soldiers were depicted. The New York Times reported that Mortimer D. Leggett, who had led a Union brigade at Vicksburg, visited the cyclorama and found in it “not a single point of truth in fact.” Out on the West Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle compared Battles of Vicksburg with a cyclorama of Waterloo that had previously been displayed in that city, concluding that the latter spectacle “showed signs of more careful execution, and was, perhaps a greater work of art.”
Then too the increasing accessibility of cycloramas undermined their novelty and likely contributed to their undoing. Battles of Vicksburg appeared successively at different venues, and that cyclorama as well as Grant’s Assault portrayed the same battle simultaneously at a variety of locations.
A number of large cities had polygonal buildings that accommodated cycloramas at the height of the craze, including among others Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chattanooga, Detroit, Boston and Buffalo. Major urban markets for cycloramic art in the American North, Midwest and West may have been approaching the saturation point in 1888, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle could still report in 1891, “They are just getting those battle cycloramas down South.” Also in 1891 the same newspaper noted that even in smaller cities, “The popularity of this form of painting appears to be increasing, and it is a pretty poor town that cannot afford a ‘Battle of Gettysburg.’” But only one year later the Daily Eagle was referring to a time when cycloramas “were all the rage.” Meanwhile displays based on other topics had undermined the medium’s novelty—including views of Sedan, Bunker Hill, Biblical Jerusalem, the Little Big Horn and many others. As interest waned, some structures built to display cycloramas were converted to other uses, including in one case an indoor cycling track.
Meanwhile a rival type of battle re-creation—the panoramic pyrotechnical reenactment—was becoming more common. By July 1886, a New York promoter was staging an outdoor spectacle billed as The Siege of Vicksburg before audiences in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Kansas City. Siege of Vicksburg combined a background panorama, or panoramas, painted on 25,000 feet of canvas (probably displayed straight or semicircularly); 3-D terrain models so large that two railroad cars were needed to move them between venues; a reenactment by two companies of militiamen portraying Federals and Confederates; models or mockups of Union gunboats; and a fireworks display. Newspapers indicate that the display opened in the last minutes of sunlight, to allow the audience to comprehend the “magnificent work of art” and place the painted Vicksburg in relation to the faux armies that were already engaged in “military movements” around it and a fringe of terrain models. When darkness fell, pyrotechnicians unleashed a storm of fireworks to simulate exploding shells, while the militia expended blank ammunition to simulate musket fire that accompanied Union troops as they “advanced up the heights.”
Siege of Vicksburg thus not only matched the expansive views and 3-D terrain of the cycloramas but upped the ante. The explosions in particular represented a particularly authentic addition, both as a component of the fighting and also of the celebration by Grant’s army when Pemberton surrendered. Pyrotechnics also highlighted countless celebrations in the North when the Vicksburg and Gettysburg anniversaries coincided during the Fourth of July week.
In 1886 a Kansas City journalist who watched the Siege of Vicksburg reported that there were “15,000 people in attendance…and it would be safe to say that a more delighted audience never assembled before an out-door entertainment.” Although pyrotechnic re-creations were limited to outdoor venues, their popularity outlasted that of the cycloramas. In at least two cities, New York in 1893 and Chicago in 1895, promoters staged regular pyrotechnical portrayals of the fighting at Vicksburg. One of the Chicago shows reportedly drew 13,000 spectators.
When the Bertrand-Sergent cyclorama closed in San Francisco, it was dispatched beyond American shores. In May 1890, Battles of Vicksburg opened in Tokyo, where it remained at least through July 1891. Japan was then only three years away from the first major demonstration of its own military modernization, which brought the Japanese victory over China in 1894-1895, then Russia in 1904-1905. Both wars would see the Japanese assault and besiege fortified ports, raising the possibility that art which had become passé in one nation may have proved inspirational halfway around the globe.
Noel G. Harrison, who writes from Fredericksburg, Va., would like to thank Vicksburg NMP historian Terrence J. Winschel for his help with this article.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.