Gettysburg Cyclorama Comes Back to Life

Out of public view since 2005, Gettysburg’s famed cyclorama painting, The Battle of Gettysburg, has been restored to its former full-color glory. The first of 14 panels, measuring 26 feet wide by 40 feet high, was hung in the state-of-the-art Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center in August. The new center is scheduled to open in fall 2008.

The 360-degree panorama of Pickett’s Charge, the final Confederate assault of the three-day battle, was painted in 1883-84 by Paul Philippoteaux and a team of 20 artists. Conservators have been working on the painting since 2003.

Past restoration attempts, as well as fire and water damage, have taken their toll. At some point, 14 feet of the canvas had been cut off. In 1962 the painting was moved to the specially built Cyclorama Center, where according to Robert Wilburn, president of the Gettysburg Foundation, its poor installation and a lack of climate control created additional stresses.

Olin Conservation, Inc., undertook the $11.2 million restoration project. The firm had previously restored the murals in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Civil War Auction Nets $6.5 Million

An auction billed as the biggest ever sale of Civil War artifacts brought in more than $6 million in June, and a second auction is scheduled for December. Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas reported that an unnamed bidder paid $1.6 million for a ceremonial sword belonging to General Ulysses S. Grant. The citizens of Kentucky gave the sword to Grant when he became General in Chief of the U.S. Army in 1864. Other top sellers among the 750 historical items on the block were General George Custer’s battle flag, which sold for nearly $900,000, and a 3rd Texas Cavalry flag, which auctioned for almost $50,000.

Rehabilitating Uncle Remus

A descendant of “Uncle Remus” creator Joel Chandler Harris is trying to change attitudes toward the author. Harris’ great-great-great-grandson Lain Shakespeare is now director of the Wren’s Nest, Harris’ home in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta and the city’s oldest house museum. He is working closely with the city’s African-American community to garner renewed support for the Uncle Remus stories and the Wren’s Nest, which once banned blacks when it was operated as a private club.

Widely credited as one of the literary leaders of the New South, Harris developed a series of classic characters— Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, to name a few—based on African-American folktales he learned during the Civil War from slaves on the Georgia plantation of Joseph Addison Turner. Harris got his start as a newspaperman on Turner’s pro-Confederacy newspaper The Countryman.

In 1876 Harris became an associate editor at the prestigious Atlanta Constitution where he invented Uncle Remus, an elderly black man who regaled his audience with trickster tales in which seemingly weak characters outwit those who are stronger and more powerful. Harris’ 185 Uncle Remus stories comprise the largest collection of African-American folk literature published in the 19th century.

Still, Harris’ legacy remains complicated. Author Alice Walker, who hails from Harris’ hometown of Eatonton, Ga., has said that Harris stole the folktales. His supporters counter that Harris actually preserved an important oral tradition that might otherwise have been lost. Indeed, the emphasis at the Wren’s Nest today is on the art of storytelling, and the museum is working with local bookstores and publishers to develop programs that will encourage young people to read and to write.

St. Augustine Partners With U. of Florida

The University of Florida, which typically makes headlines for winning football and basketball championships, is now making news in the history world. In July, the school began managing 31 historic buildings in St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the United States. The city was founded by Spain in 1565, and heritage tourism is vital to its economy. It has leased the historic sites from the state for the last decade for $1 per year, but rent from the businesses that occupy those buildings is not enough to maintain the deteriorating structures, which need an estimated $7 million in repairs. While the university has the potential to offer more sustainable funding, the project also is viewed as a valuable learning experience for Gator students according to Roy Graham, director of the university’s College of Design, Construction and Planning and former resident architect at Colonial Williamsburg.

Virginia Spotlights Indian Heritage

This year’s 400th anniversary celebration of the Jamestown settlement sparked a renewed interest in the history of Virginia’s Indian tribes. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has published a new guide to significant American Indian sites in the state. Sites along the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail include the Pamunkey Indian Museum near Jamestown and the Monacan Indian Living History Village at Natural Bridge.

Brandywine Battlefield Rescued

The nonprofit Brandywine Conservancy has purchased a key piece of the Brandywine battlefield in Chester County, Pa., for $8 million. Suburban sprawl from Philadelphia, some 30 miles to the east, has long threatened the site where the largest battle of the Revolutionary War was fought on September 11, 1777. Although the entire battle site was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the designation provides no protection against development. For almost 20 years, local preservationists worked to establish easements on four of the five undeveloped properties in the landmark area deemed most historically significant. The fifth property—the 100-acre plot at Skirmish Hill Farm where the heaviest fighting was concentrated—was considered the “hole in the doughnut.” Among those who contributed to the conservancy’s effort were local elementary school students who collected more than $200 in change from their fourth- and fifth-grade classmates.

Slave Labor Kept Civil War Ironworks Running

An archaeological study in the central Alabama town of McCalla has revealed that slaves comprised the predominant workforce of Alabama’s Civil War iron industry. Archaeologists from the Alabama Museum of Natural History have uncovered the ruins of 15 slave cabins near the Tannehill Ironworks, which was established in 1859. At the height of the Civil War, as many as 600 bondsmen may have worked at Tannehill, which was a major iron producer for the Confederacy. The Tannehill furnaces were destroyed by the 8th Iowa Cavalry on March 31, 1865. The site was restored in the 1970s and is open to the public as the Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park.

Mohegan Burial Ground Saved

The Mohegan Indian tribe is spending millions of dollars to purchase and restore the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground in Norwich, Conn. The burial ground dates to the 1700s and was later visited by Presidents Andrew Jackson and William Taft and Wild West showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Backed by a fortune in casino revenues, the Mohegans are committed to developing a fitting tribute to their ancestors. The project is called “The Lasting of the Mohegans,” a play on the title of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic 1826 book The Last of the Mohicans.

University Preserves Trail of Tears

In the early 1830s, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes were removed by government order from their homes in the southeastern United States and relocated to present-day Oklahoma. The long forced walk became known as the Trail of Tears. Now, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has initiated a project to preserve a five-acre site on its campus where those tribes stopped to rest and draw water. The school has demolished a number of modern buildings along Coleman Creek and will plant trees, grasses and other indigenous flora of the 1830s. Located along the Old Southwest Trail, Little Rock is considered one of the most historically significant places related to the Trail of Tears. The city’s Riverside Park is already a certified site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

American Indian POW Art on Exhibit

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City will exhibit drawings made by Southern Plains Indians imprisoned in St. Augustine, Fla. Seventy-one men and one woman taken prisoner during the 1874 Red River War in the Texas panhandle were transported east to Fort Marion where they were held until 1878. The prisoners were encouraged to draw as part of a program that included instruction in English and Christianity. Their drawings were often sold to tourists in St. Augustine. The exhibit runs through December 31 and will coincide with a new book on the Fort Marion artists by Joyce M. Szabo, a professor of art and art history at the University of New Mexico.

National Archives Films on Sale at Amazon

The National Archives has reached a nonexclusive agreement with CreateSpace, an on-demand media publisher and subsidiary of online retailer, to digitize its historic film footage. The first six DVDs, featuring Universal Newsreel footage from the 1950s and ’60s, went on sale on Amazon in July. In addition to Universal Newsreels from 1929 to 1967, the National Archives has 200,000 motion pictures in its collection, including documentaries, instructional films and combat footage.

Distribution agreements between publicly funded institutions and private businesses have raised questions recently. Last year the Smithsonian struck a semi-exclusive deal with the Showtime cable network that many documentary filmmakers and members of Congress believed restricted access to Smithsonian materials. Both the National Archives and CreateSpace stress that their deal is not exclusive. Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein said the arrangement will benefit the public by making National Archives collections more accessible. CreateSpace will also provide the archives with preservation copies of the digitized films.

The New York Times Archives

The donated more than New York Times has 700,000 historical documents to the New York Public Library. The journalistic treasure trove recounts the newspaper’s history under Adolph S. Ochs, his son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger, his grandson Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and his great-grandson and current Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. The library expects most of the collection will be available to researchers within a year; negotiations are underway for a release date of the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger papers.

Correspondence in the archives reveals frequent disputes between the paper’s owners and reporters as well as occasional clashes with government officials. In a 1916 letter, Secretary of War Newton Baker complained that the Times had revealed confidential information regarding American troop deployments along the Mexican border.

MIA Database

The U.S. Department of Defense has developed an online database identifying nearly 78,000 American soldiers from World War II whose bodies were never recovered. The project will assist family members and researchers who are still trying to find soldiers officially declared missing in action.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here