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Virtual reality and authentic controversy.

In the spring of 1886, a mammoth Civil War artwork opened to paying audiences in New York City. Titled Cyclorama of the Battles of Vicksburg, May 22nd 1863, its exhibition in original or copy form, under the alternate names Panorama of the Land and Naval Battles of Vicksburg or General Grant’s Assault on Vicksburg, would later include extended showings in Milwaukee and San Francisco. Its popularity did not last. The public eventually turned for historical entertainment from Battles of Vicksburg and the six other Civil War cycloramas (and from the copies that at least three of those spawned) to the animated media of cinema and panoramic puppetry. Today the Vicksburg artwork is the least famous of the seven, and the fate of its canvas and three-dimensional foreground is unknown. Almost forgotten too is its role as a partisan expression in one of the Civil War’s major controversies.

French artist Joseph Bertrand began work on Battles of Vicksburg in 1884. According to its promotional literature, he spent several months at Vicksburg that year, examining the ground and making photographs and sketches. He also interviewed veterans and consulted military maps, then returned to France and joined fellow artist Lucien Sergent at a studio in Paris designed especially for producing the massive painted portions of cycloramas. Bertrand had worked on seven different battle cycloramas displayed in European cities, and he collaborated with Sergent on Waterloo and Gettysburg cycloramas intended for American audiences. For the Vicksburg cyclorama, Bertrand would create the landscapes while Sergent concentrated on the troops.

All told, they devoted 18 months to painting the canvas before shipping it to New York, where technicians hung it circularly within a large cylindrical display building. George Glaenzer added a tactile foreground of fortification elements, battle debris, vegetation and soil. Abutting the foot of the painting and essential to any cyclorama’s extraordinary potential for illusion, such features deliberately confused the audience, which found it difficult to determine the difference between their own three-dimensional world and the two-dimensional canvas.

On May 22, 1886, General George A. Sheridan (no relation to Philip) delivered the opening-day address for Battles of Vicksburg. Spectators gazed out at the surrounding cyclorama from a central platform that simulated a viewpoint atop the Railroad Redoubt, a major strongpoint on the Confederate line defending Vicksburg. But for the absent sounds of combat, Sheridan gushed, “We should indeed be in battle itself.” His hyperbole was not without justification: One moment the audience was on a New York sidewalk in 1886, the next they were physically engulfed by a representation of Vicksburg and the assaults launched there precisely 23 years before by three of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee corps—Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand’s XIII, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s XV and Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII— against Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s Army of Vicksburg.

The Railroad Redoubt offered Bertrand and Sergent an appealing site upon which to ground a concise narrative. On May 22, 1863, some 15-20 soldiers in one of McClernand’s regiments, the 22nd Iowa, fought their way into a section of the traverse-segmented redoubt, a dramatic action that the artists re-created in the cyclorama’s foreground. The Iowans’ temporary lodgment would represent the high-water mark of the Union attacks on both that day and on May 19, which had seen the first thrust against Vicksburg’s fortifications. From among tens of thousands of assaulting troops, other Federals in other areas on the 19th and 22nd reached ditches and exterior slopes—even a parapet top—but nowhere outside the Railroad Redoubt did they attack past parapets. On May 22, moreover, the ebbing of the Union tide from its crest at the redoubt marked the transition, in general terms, from assault to siege in Grant’s approach to capturing the town.

Yet simplicity and drama of narrative did not give rise necessarily to neutrality of narrative. The Railroad Redoubt, situated at the center of Bertrand and Sergent’s effort at storytelling, also lay at the center of an enduring historical controversy. From the start, the two artists and their publicists encountered pressure to choose sides.

Grant and McClernand, whose relationship was warped by longstanding tension, had battled one another over tactics and strategy for the May 22 operation even before the shooting erupted. Grant planned to attack over a broad frontage and rejected an alternate scheme that McClernand submitted in writing on May 20, which called for a more concentrated surge. With the actual battle underway two days later, McClernand sent Grant a series of messages suggesting that the inability of other Federal corps to match the ongoing effort of the XIII jeopardized any possibility of victory through the broad-front approach.

Around 11:55 a.m. on the 22nd, for instance, McClernand sent a message to Grant stating that XIII Corps troops had “gained the enemy’s entrenchments at several points.” This claim was reiterated in another message from McClernand to Grant, datelined noon, reporting his men’s “part possession of two forts”: the Railroad Redoubt and the Second Texas Lunette. This description, which left open the possibility that McClernand’s men held only ditches and exterior slopes, improved in McClernand’s 3:15 dispatch to Grant that reported their presence “in” those fortifications. Yet in the absence of a “vigorous blow by McPherson” (an 11:15 a.m. message from McClernand to Grant) or “a vigorous push…all along the line” (McClernand’s noon message to Grant), the XIII Corps found itself stalled and “hotly engaged,” most notably with Confederates entrenched behind the Railroad Redoubt.

McClernand sought to consolidate his hold on the historic high ground eight days after his soldiers fell back from the literal high ground at the redoubt. In a congratulatory order issued to XIII Corps troops on May 30, their commander praised them for “the largest success achieved anywhere along the line” on May 22. McClernand went on to recapitulate implicitly the critiques embodied in his May 20 plan and his May 22 messages. The enemy had eventually “massed their forces and concentrated their attack” to eliminate the XIII Corps lodgment because Grant remained averse to concentrating against “a weakened point” and because other corps “at other points” had proved themselves unequal to the XIII’s own execution of Grant’s directive for a relatively dispersed approach. McClernand’s argument entered the public realm when copies of the order appeared in two newspapers.

On June 17 and 18, Sherman and McPherson spearheaded a figurative historical counterattack by dispatching letters to army headquarters protesting both the content and the public nature of McClernand’s May 30 missive. Not only had their troops renewed already costly assaults on May 22 in response to McClernand’s optimistic dispatches, Sherman and McPherson argued, the additional casualties they sustained should lie on McClernand’s conscience. His actual efforts, in their telling, fell far short of his reported efforts and proved too inconsequential to justify calls for supportive action by the XV and XVII corps. McPherson did not dispute the existence of timing intervals between Grant’s dispersed thrusts. Nonetheless, he characterized the lapses as too brief to afford the Confederates opportunities to exploit the advantage of interior lines, as McClernand alleged.

Grant dramatically expanded the controversy beginning on June 18, when he removed McClernand from command for publishing the congratulatory order without permission. Grant’s official campaign report, which he completed three weeks later and two days after Pemberton surrendered the Army of Vicksburg, acknowledged that McClernand’s Iowans achieved at the Railroad Redoubt the only actual entry of an enemy fortification on May 22. Grant also acknowledged that he had delayed ordering renewed operations by Sherman and McPherson despite McClernand’s first messages regarding the potential of the Iowans’ accomplishment. Yet the report also asserted that the redoubt bridgehead had represented a chance to alter the battle’s outcome only if widened to incorporate the major fortifications on either side. Moreover, the army commander’s emphasis on the singularity of the success at the Railroad Redoubt implicitly debunked McClernand’s claims of the XIII Corps itself expanding the bridgehead by placing troops in the Second Texas Lunette as well.

“During most of the…assault” on May 22, Grant’s report added, he had surveyed the battle from a vantage point that he later judged to be better than McClernand’s. This allegedly clearer perspective suggested the futility of attempting the bridgehead’s widening with supportive efforts by Sherman and McPherson, a conclusion that Grant reconsidered only when the messages from XIII Corps headquarters grew too insistent and hopeful to ignore. Grant’s allowing McClernand the benefit of the doubt on May 22, the report concluded, “resulted in the increase of our mortality list fully 50 per cent” for no purpose.

Yet McClernand, joined by supporters in the XIII Corps, showed no hint of capitulation, although he was outmatched by the increasing fame of his antagonists. The dispute over the May 22 operation would flare intermittently throughout the lives of its commanders. McClernand successfully lobbied the Lincoln administration for restoration to command, albeit never again under Grant’s direct supervision, and unsuccessfully tried to get a court of inquiry to evaluate McClernand’s operations at Vicksburg and elsewhere. In late 1863, meanwhile, he contracted with an Illinois printer to publish an expanded version of his own official report. The new version elaborated on his previous arguments regarding the May 22 assaults by rebutting his detractors and offering affidavits from his former subordinates who were convinced of the great squandered promise of the Railroad Redoubt bridgehead and of its visual obscurity from Grant’s battlefield vantage point.

After the Chicago Tribune carried an unflattering portrayal of McClernand’s generalship by Grant biographer Adam Badeau in 1868, McClernand responded in another Illinois paper and in The New York Times. In both journals he accused Badeau of doing “his master’s” bidding and Grant’s Vicksburg report of denigrating the XIII Corps “either from ignorance or malice.” An ex-soldier of the corps, writing to the Cincinnati Gazette in 1881, urged readers to ignore Badeau’s calumnies and to understand that the congratulatory order of May 30, 1863, had doomed its author, because Grant found the prospect of allowing “so much glory to McClernand” unbearable in light of McClernand’s command having accomplished “what no other corps…had done—i.e., captured and held throughout the day two of the strongest forts…around Vicksburg.” While penning his much-anticipated memoirs, a dying Grant himself administered what proved to be the most public lambasting of McClernand’s Vicksburg record, thanks in part to successive appearances in 1885 of the critique on the pages of Century Magazine, The New York Times and Grant’s memoirs in book form. Yet in October of that year, with the general-turned-president less than three months in his grave, the Chicago Tribune published a XIII Corps veteran’s letter that accused Grant of leaving the Iowans “to fight alone” on May 22, and their comrades in the corps “humiliated by Grant’s treatment of the noble Thirteenth and its brave leader.”

As a conscious act of homage, Bertrand and Sergent’s Battles of Vicksburg would adopt the interpretations of Grant and his historical allies. Doubtless the artists anticipated a windfall in the immense public interest surrounding Grant’s final illness and death. The souvenir booklet that accompanied the cyclorama’s New York showings bore his portrait as its only cover illustration, claimed he had personally suggested Vicksburg as the artists’ subject and described as “immortal” the memoirs that “his dying hand penned.” The booklet then resorted to boldface type in asserting that Confederate strength in numbers and fortifications left the May 22 operation with “No Hope of Success” and thus no viable tactical options.

Beginning at midmorning on the 22nd, some of McClernand’s Iowans had occupied portions of the Railroad Redoubt interior for at least an hour cumulatively and, along with other XIII Corps troops, its ditch and exterior slope for even longer. These troops and supporting units thwarted Confederate efforts at repossession until late afternoon. Yet the cyclorama echoed the souvenir booklet’s “no hope” theme by depicting that the repossession was well underway within moments of the leading Iowans’ passage across the parapet. The artists showed the advanced ranks of Southern defenders holding the interlopers at the firing step, while two columns of additional Confederate troops rushed in to assist. Although the real-life Federals had mainly entered via a gap blasted by a ferocious preparatory bombardment, their cycloramic counterparts contended with a virtually unscathed parapet.

While the 22nd Iowa fought in the foreground of the artwork, moreover, the 6th Missouri (Union) Infantry battling in the background represented the valiant but doomed efforts by other Federal corps to fully support—in the pro-Grant historical interpretation— McClernand’s troops. All these events transpired under the gaze of an omniscient paint-and-canvas Grant; he watched from within what a cyclorama reviewer for The New York Times described as “astonishingly close range of the rebel rifles and cannon.”

Bertrand and Sergent’s artwork thus adopted the financially prudent course of reiterating historical arguments against which McClernand and his sympathizers had fought, rather than assailing directly either him or the XIII Corps, the veterans of which represented a sizable bloc of potential cyclorama viewers. On the one hand, the artists evidently declined to include a figure representing McClernand. On the other, the cyclorama booklet did mention his name (although least frequently of all the main protagonists—six mentions, as compared to seven for Sherman, eight for McPherson and 24 for Grant), and during part of the opening-year run, the managers of Battles of Vicksburg hired a veteran of a XIII Corps unit, the Chicago Mercantile Battery, to offer narrations to audiences.

Neither the choice of narrator nor Bertrand and Sergent’s placement of the XIII Corps in the foreground of the Railroad Redoubt apparently inspired the first members of the corps who saw the exhibit to encourage their comrades to attend. A list of 60 cyclorama spectators who identified themselves as veterans of the Army of the Tennessee that was published during the cyclorama’s first year on display showed that the greatest number had served in the XV Corps (42 percent) and XVII Corps (32 percent), while the fewest had served in the XIII Corps (27 percent). McClernand’s attending veterans, moreover, had served in the fewest number of different units within a corps, compared to the affiliation tallies among other ex-soldiers in the group of 60. The XIII Corps attendees did provide the highest representation of a single unit within a corps: the narrator’s Chicago Mercantile Battery. Its former gunners doubtless patronized Battles of Vicksburg more as an embodiment (literally) of battery history than of corps history.

Some scholars of the future would judge the Civil War cycloramas as escapist entertainment that intentionally avoided the conflict’s bloody horrors, the bitterness between the opposing armies or the contributions of African Americans to the Union cause. While the cycloramas neglected those issues to some extent, the artists who created the seven spectacles and their copies did not shrink from other divisive issues raised by the war. The Merrimac and Monitor cyclorama, for example, took pro-Union sides in historical disputes between Northerners and Southerners over technological precedents, combat sequences and the laws of war. In championing Grant’s version of events on May 22, meanwhile, Battles of Vicksburg embodied partisanship of a sort that perpetuated controversy among Northerners.

McClernand and his adherents perhaps found consolation in the likelihood that nonveterans could easily misunderstand or overlook the historical interpretations underlying cycloramas, notwithstanding supplementary explanations of booklets and hired narrators. Even a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reviewer, who was presumably more perceptive than most spectators, managed to come away from Bertrand and Sergent’s artwork in 1886 convinced that it portrayed events in July 1863 rather than in May, and that Pemberton had surrendered his army after Grant permanently ruptured the Vicksburg defenses at the Railroad Redoubt, with the XIII Corps’ “advanced platoons bursting in among the disordered ranks of butternut and gray, over parapets and through embrasures….” For Battles of Vicksburg, moreover, physical obscurity eventually followed interpretive obscurity, offering McClernand partisans still another last laugh.


Noel G. Harrison writes from Charlottesville, Va. He would like to thank Vicksburg National Military Park historian Terrence J. Winschel for his assistance with the artwork for this piece.

Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here