George Leo Frankenstein’s View from Oak Hill

This George Leo Frankenstein watercolor highlights some of the most prominent places of fighting during the first day ??? July 1st, 1863 ??? of the Battle of Gettysburg. The view was painted from Oak Hill, and looks to the southeast. In the central ba…

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This George Leo Frankenstein watercolor highlights some of the most prominent places of fighting during the first day – July 1st, 1863 – of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The view was painted from Oak Hill, and looks to the southeast.  In the central background is the white main edifice of Pennsylvania College.  To the right of the college is the famed tulip tree on East Cemetery Hill.  In the right background are Little and Big Round Top.  Frankenstein was clearly a talented artist, but what new perspectives can he bring to our 21st Century understanding of the battle?  Is there anything to be learned from the painting that could not be better understood with a map?

Pennsylvania College’s (now Gettysburg College) Pennsylvania Hall can be seen in the middle of the painting.  Why did Frankenstein make this the building in the center of his landscape?   Standing on Oak Hill today, looking out toward the town of Gettysburg as Frankenstein did, one gets a much different view.  Pennsylvania Hall is completely hidden by the modern campus.  Ironically, the Musselman Library, which stores several of Frankenstein’s paintings, blocks Penn Hall from sight.  While it is well-known that Penn Hall was used as a hospital, not being able to see the building as Frankenstein did somehow obscures this fact.  Upon further reflection, however, the viewer becomes aware that Frankenstein has captured the college campus from the viewpoint of Union soldiers during their retreat on July 1st.  Because the landscape has changed so drastically, the modern viewer cannot fully understand, without some sort of aid, what Pennsylvania Hall meant to the battle and to the soldiers fighting in it.  With this painting, Frankenstein provides that aid, allowing the viewer to visualize what one of the least-visited parts of the Gettysburg battlefield looked like during the fighting.  That is an aid that cannot be found in any map or text.

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Frankenstein, a Civil War veteran painted this scene in the summer of 1866 while on a tour of many of the war’s major battlefields.  As mentioned, the view is from Oak Hill looking south-southeast toward the town of Gettysburg.  Beyond the town, the forms of Wolf’s Hill and Culp’s Hill can be seen, and in the right background rise both Big and Little Round Top.  Notable features in the foreground include the red barn and barely visible house to the left, belonging to Moses McLean, as well as the Mummasburg Road, along which stands the Hagey House.  Just left of the center of the painting the white-washed walls and cupola of Pennsylvania Hall can be seen, standing a quarter mile outside of town.

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On the morning of July 1st, 1863, the opening fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg took place west of town.  In the early afternoon, however, that fighting spread to the areas north and northeast of town that can be viewed in the painting.  The Confederate division of Major General Robert Rodes contested elements of the Federal 1st and 11th Corps along Oak Ridge and on the plain in front of Pennsylvania College.  Confederates from Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, especially the division of Robert Rodes, would have been granted this particular view from the crest of Oak Hill.  From this spot on the field Colonel Edward O’Neal’s Alabama brigade launched an ill-fated attack on Union line, thwarted in part by flanking fire from members of the 45th New York Infantry, in position at the McLean barn.

In the late afternoon, as Federal positions north of town gave way, the fighting moved south toward Pennsylvania Hall and the town beyond.  The level of resistance has been a topic of debate, but the 11th Corps, at least to some degree, conducted a fighting retreat.  In the right distance the Mummasburg Road rises across Oak Ridge.  Here the Colonel Charles W. Tilden, commander of the First Corps’ 16th Maine, used his sword to tear the regiment’s flag into pieces for distribution among his men rather than surrender the colors to the enemy.  Development in the century and a half has altered our understanding of the landscape, but Pennsylvania Hall stood directly in the path of this moving battle.

In painting images of Gettysburg, Frankenstein stated that he was trying to capture the beauty of the fields surrounding the town.  Landscape painting was an increasingly popular genre of painting in the nineteenth century.  Painters sought beautiful landscapes, but often sought to portray them as something ethereal in a rapidly changing nation.  Frankenstein may well have found such beauty in the summer of 1866, but on that 1st of July, 1863, these fields north of town witnessed absolute carnage and devastation.  The picturesque white walls of Pennsylvania Hall may have merely been a noticeable feature for him when he painted, fitting well with the rolling fields and quaint town.  But Frankenstein’s image can serve as a sort of portal for a more startling image, for on that fateful July day, Pennsylvania Hall would have stood in eerie contrast to the open field in front of it.  The golden beauty, fitting so well with the pristine Pennsylvania Hall, would have been gone.  Upon those rolling fields thousands of dead and maimed men would have fallen, creating the effect of a large fan spread before the hall, literally leading up to the steps of the college edifice.

After the fighting had moved on, and in the midst of the gruesome aftermath that remained, the white walls of Pennsylvania Hall would have looked like a refuge to the wounded and dying men on the plain in front.  This may not strike us when we first look at Frankenstein’s painting, but if we interpose what those rolling fields would have looked like, everything changes.  The picturesque hall would no longer fit with the serenity of what is painted, but would stand out as something uniquely serene in the midst of a literal hell.  For soldiers suffering on the fields that July evening, Pennsylvania Hall would have represented a glimmering hope, a haven of rest and aid for the men who had already played their part in the Battle of Gettysburg.

And the building did become an aid station and hospital.  Perhaps between five hundred and seven hundred wounded were treated in the college edifice.  Instead of a haven, however, most who were treated there probably remembered their experience in the buildin
g as another type of  hell.  A student at the college recalled, “the moans, prayers and shrieks of the wounded and dying were heard everywhere.”  And, as opposed to the scenes of pastoral beauty that greeted the soldiers marching out to the battlefield, in the wake of the battle one eyewitness remembered, “The Pennsylvania College, with its beautiful grounds, is occupied by wounded rebels, numbering from 5 to 7 hundred; and as I walked through the halls so familiar to me, and contrasted its present condition with what it was but a few weeks ago, my heart sickened at the devastation and ruin that surrounded the college.”

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Though the battlefields north of town have changed a great deal since the battle occurred and Frankenstein painted his images, a visit to Gettysburg will offer the best means of understanding and appreciating the events of July 1-3, 1863.


For further information follow the links below:

Click here for information on a self-guided Civil War walking tour of Gettysburg College’s campus

 Click here for further information regarding Pennsylvania’s Halls role as a hospital during and after the Battle of Gettysburg

To see other Frankenstein paintings of the Gettysburg battlefields, follow this link to the Musselman Library Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection

For information on a self-guided Civil War walking tour of Gettysburg College’s campus

For further reading on the actions described above see Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg – The First Day, (Chapel Hill, 2000).

 

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