To help viewers identify the scene, Frankenstein depicts several well-known landmarks, and he also provided identifications in the margins for other landmarks that were less noticeable to casual observers. One notation identifies the ditch running from left to right in the foreground as Willoughby Run, an important feature of the first day’s battlefield. Another prominent feature of this scene is the John Herbst Woods and McPherson Ridge which mostly obscure the Lutheran Theological Seminary on Seminary Ridge.
In the opening stages of the Battle, Union Cavalry under General John Buford established a defensive position along the ridges in the background of the painting. Buford, who was desperate to hold off the numerically superior Confederate infantry until Union infantry under General Reynolds arrived to relieve him, instantly recognized the value of the terrain. Buford deployed his mounted cannoneers, or “flying artillery”, under Lt. John H. Calef along McPherson’s Ridge north and south of the Pike. The Confederate artillerists also appreciated the terrain. Immediately behind Frankenstein’s reference point is another rise, Herr’s Ridge. Here, in response to the fire from Calef’s guns, Confederate General Henry Heth arrayed his cannons under Colonel William Pegram. A Confederate artillerist later reported,
The battalion moved forward to a commanding position on the right and left of the pike, a mile distant from Gettysburg.
Here we found the enemy’s batteries in position, and partially concealed from view behind the crest of a hill. We opened upon them with ten Napoleons and seven rifled guns (the two 12-pounder howitzers were not brought into position, and one of Lieutenant [W. E.] Zimmerman’s rifles was disabled while being brought rapidly into action), and forced them to limber up and retire their pieces three distinct times.
They were brought back twice under shelter of the hills, in order to support their advancing infantry, whose lines our guns played upon as they advanced, with telling effect.
Military commanders, especially artillerists, are trained to search for ground that offers a clear line of sight with minimal obstruction. This might also have been Frankenstein’s primary motivation for choosing this spot as his scene. This perspective offers a view of much of the fighting that occurred on July 1. After an hour of hard fighting between Confederate infantry and Union cavalry, the first of Union General John Reynolds’ infantry arrived and hastily went into action on McPherson Ridge. His first division, under General James Wadsworth, was composed of two brigades. The first brigade to arrive on the field was General Lysander Cutler’s, followed by General Solomon Meredith’s famed Iron Brigade. Reynolds ordered Cutler to defend the area around the middle Railroad Cut while Reynolds directed Meredith’s men into action in Herbst Woods. As Reynolds led a regiment of the Iron Brigade into the woods against James Archer’s Confederate Brigade, he looked directly behind him to the Lutheran Seminary to see if any more of his men were coming into view and a minié ball struck him in the head killing him instantly. Frankenstein noted the spot of Reynolds’ death at the top of the right panel.
Further to the right on the top panel Frankenstein notes the location of the Round Tops, scene of the some of the most famous fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The bottom right panel is marked “Gettysburg Spring.” This is a reference to the Katalysine Springs which was long thought to produce water of medicinal value. The legend persists that Union and Confederate soldiers bathed and drank from the springs. After the Civil War, when the springs became a popular spot for tourists visiting the Battlefield, a group of investors constructed the Katalysine Springs Hotel. The hotel, completed on June 28, 1869, was a lavish four-story structure that could accommodate over 200 guests. Guests included Civil War veterans, politicians, writers and artists, so it is almost certain that Union and Confederate veterans shared a drink together at the springs after the war. The Gettysburg Country Club was built on ground formerly occupied by the Katlaysine Springs Hotel.
The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in approximately 51,000 casualties. In spite of the prodigious bloodletting that took place on these fields, the amount of post-battle construction and development that occurred is a testament to the geological, topographical and historical value of the ground. In some ways this development posed the first threat to the preservation of the historic battlefield. The wealth of natural resources, coupled with the societal impact of the battle, made this spot a focus of public interest for several decades. The Katalysine Springs Hotel was destroyed in a fire in 1917, but its footprint remains today in the form of the old country club, and in the spirit of economic development, which is a blessing and a curse.
To see other Frankenstein paintings of the battlefield at the Musselman Library, visit Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection.