A fiery sun is shown breaking through a dark sky. Boulders litter the landscape, while a dirt track, cracked and broken, runs through the foreground. In the distance, two hills are seen, the near sparsely forested and rocky, the far covered in trees. This vivid scene was painted by George Frankenstein in 1866, and is an excellent example of atmospheric perspective, as the warm colors in the foreground progress to the cooler colors in the background. But why did he choose to present this particular view of the battlefield?
A modern observer might recognize that this scene depicts Little Round Top, the leftmost hill, strewn with rocks. Little Round Top has become famous since the late 19th century when Joshua Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for commanding of the 20th Maine in a gallant defense, protecting the Union flank from obliteration. This conflict has become ingrained in the national consciousness as one of the turning points of the battle of Gettysburg, and has been immortalized in print and film, including The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and the 1993 filmGettysburg directed by Ronald Maxwell, among countless other iterations, including a US Army Leadership Manual, FM22-100. But Chamberlain’s heroics did not become widely known until well after Frankenstein’s painting, and the artist’s vantage point is oriented toward the northern face of Little Round Top, not the southern face where the 20th Maine saw action; thus, Frankenstein did not select this scene with the intention of capitalizing on Chamberlain’s fame.
In order to speculate on why Frankenstein chose this scene, one must discover what actions were well known at the time of the painting in 1866. As it turns out, Frankenstein’s painting exquisitely portrays the site of the charge of Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s division of Pennsylvania Reserves from the Fifth Corps in the Valley of Death.
On July 2nd, 1863, the second day of battle at Gettysburg, Confederate General James Longstreet launched an assault on the left flank of the Union army, but was surprised, to learn that Union General Daniel Sickles had advanced from his position on Cemetery Ridge westward into a wheat field and peach orchard. This advance by Sickles left his troops in a vulnerable salient, exposed on multiple flanks. Lafayette McLaws, a division commander under Longstreet, took advantage of this vulnerability and punched a hole through the Union line, pursuing the retreating Federals toward Plum Run, a stream near the Round Tops.
These retreating soldiers bumped into Gen. Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserves. Seizing the moment, Crawford charged the Confederates with his division and routed them, driving them back across Plum Run and the valley to the west of the Round Tops to a stone wall in the Wheatfield, an area subsequently known as the Valley of Death. Gen. Crawford’s Pennsylvanians had saved the day.
Well, not quite. True, Crawford’s division attacked the Confederates, but the charge was actually led by Colonel William McCandless and supported by Colonel David Nevin of the Sixth Corps, each swinging forward with a brigade. Seeking to get in on the action, Crawford grabbed his division colors from a shocked sergeant and galloped into the fray. In the grand scheme of the battle, this was a minor action which resulted in few casualties, yet Gen. Crawford was a skilled publicist after the war and basked in the glory of this action.
Beginning with the Committee on the Conduct of the War hearings in 1864 when various generals were debriefed about the battle, Crawford began exaggerating his contributions, trying to claim credit for various other actions throughout the battle in which he had little or no part. Later on, he became prominent in the efforts to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield, but with a unique vision; he hoped to cover Little Round Top with a memorial building and a museum hailing his division as the saviors of Little Round Top.
This last effort obviously did not succeed, as today Little Round Top—with the exception of the monuments—is largely faithful to its 1863 state and that depicted by Frankenstein three years later. However, Crawford’s publicizing of his division’s actions in the Valley of Death during the battle resulted in no small amount of fame. The fame of Crawford, and in particular his charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, might explain the location of the painting, as the scene of this well-known charge would have been perfectly framed from left to right through the scene.
One location whose battle actions are largely unknown both at the time and today that is nevertheless artistically emphasized is Big Round Top. The photographs below show that part of the battlefield, and focus on the Little Round Top and the Valley of Death, with Big Round Top an afterthought in the distance.
The book from which this photograph was drawn, Early Photography at Gettysburg by William Frassanito, elaborates at great length on the actions upon Little Round Top, explaining that due to its crucial role in the battlefield it became one of the battlefield’s most popular subjects and was among the first locations to be acquired by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association; yet it makes no mention of any action upon Big Round Top. This tendency to ignore Big Round Top, or to include it only as a backdrop to the more famous Little Round Top, continues in many other accounts.
But when we carefully compare Frankenstein’s work to the above photograph, itself usually generous to Big Round Top, we notice a few distinct differences; Big Round Top is much larger (especially when compared to its neighbor) in the painting, and the entire view has shifted to the right, cutting off almost half of the Little Round Top in favor of moving Big Round Top toward the center of the painting. So why did Frankenstein not only include but emphasize Big Round Top? Did any action occur there?
During the charge of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine on July 2nd, Union troops actually pursued the fleeing 15th Alabama regiment up to the summit of Big Round Top before returning to their position on the smaller hill. Later that same night, the 20th Maine, accompanied by the 34th and 41st Pennsylvania, returned to Big Round Top and cleared it of snipers, solidifying the left flank of the Army and capturing over 25 Confederate scouts. Today this is notably acknowledged by the placing of a major monument to the 20th Maine on Big Round Top.
George Frankenstein’s selection of the scene for this vivid painting of the Valley of Death helps us realize the importance of understanding that actions that are famous today were not necessarily famous during and shortly after the war. As to the inclusion of Big Round Top, whether Frankenstein knew of this assault, or included the larger hill merely for a more complete landscape, is still a mystery. The modern viewer is left to speculate: was its inclusion purely artistic, to achieve a balance with Little Round Top? Frankenstein was a trained painter, who would have been taught to avoid symmetry and static composition. As art historian and painter Warren Prindle has surmised, for Frankenstein, “pictorial concerns outweighed his historic concerns.”
To see other Frankenstein paintings of the Gettysburg battlefields, follow this link to the Musselman Library Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection