The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama in Philadelphia

Following the first two days of fighting at Gettysburg between Union and Confederate troops, Robert E. Lee believed that his gray-clad veterans had nearly achieved victory and was determined not to leave Gettysburg without it. He also believed tha…

Following the first two days of fighting at Gettysburg between Union and Confederate troops, Robert E. Lee believed that his gray-clad veterans had nearly achieved victory and was determined not to leave Gettysburg without it.  He also believed that his army had weakened Meade’s center.  Thus, Lee’s plan for July 3rd was to open with a massive artillery barrage, and then strike the Union center with three divisions, including that of General George Pickett.  Then, according to Lee’s calculations, General Jeb Stuart would circle around the Union rear and General Ewell would assail the right flank to clamp the pincers when Pickett broke through the front.


While Lee saw the assault as the final piece of a Confederate victory, General James Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s plan to attack Meade’s center and urged him to maneuver around Meade’s left.  Lee refused and ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center with Pickett’s and two of Hill’s divisions, which consisted of fewer than 15,000 men to advance three-quarters of a mile across open fields.  Ultimately, Longstreet ordered 150 pieces of Confederate artillery to soften the Union line.  Beginning at 1:07 PM, the guns bombarded the enemy for about two hours but Meade’s line suffered little; at about 3:00 PM, Longstreet reluctantly ordered the attack.  Pickett’s three brigades, joined by six more from Hill’s division on their left and two others in reserve, marched across the open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges; the assault, begun in valor, ended in disaster.  The Union artillery destroyed the charge, as barely half of the Confederates returned to their lines.  Pickett lost two-thirds of his men, and all three of his brigadiers and all thirteen of his colonels were killed or wounded.   Although General Meade did not pursue a counterattack, the Army of the Potomac achieved victory, as they held their ground against the Confederate’s famous assault, Pickett’s Charge.


The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg has been portrayed in various types of media, including films and television shows, novels, and paintings.  In the 19th century cycloramas were a popular way of depicting historical events.  Cycloramas were first devised in Europe at the end of 18th century and became popular in the capital cities of Europe.  In the United States, however, they became popular after the Civil War.  Cycloramas are massive, circular, panoramic oil canvases that are displayed in specially constructed buildings and enhanced with landscaped foregrounds featuring trees, grasses, fences, and even life-sized figures.  A three-dimensional effect was established, so that the viewers could be in the middle of the historic scene by standing on the central platform.  In the 1880s, European artists conceived seven cycloramas that depicted the Civil War battles at Gettysburg, Atlanta, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Second Manassas, Lookout Mountain/ Missionary Ridge, and the Hampton Roads naval combat of March 1862.  Only two of these works survive to dazzle modern audiences; the Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama in Atlanta’s Grant Park and one of the four versions of its Battle of Gettysburg counterpart, located at Gettysburg National Military Park.

The painter of the Gettysburg cyclorama was French artist Paul Philippoteaux who had specialized in the huge oil canvases since 1871, when he was 25. He came to the United States in 1879 after being hired by a group of entrepreneurs to paint a recreation of the famous battle for a special display in Chicago.  Over several months in 1882, Philippoteaux made sketches on the battlefield and hired local photographer William Tipton to shoot panoramic vistas from a wooden tower to help him recall the landscape with accuracy.  He also consulted the official maps at Washington and corresponded with a number of veterans of the battle, including Union Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Abner Doubleday, who helped the painter with suggestions on how to depict the chaos of the battle.  (General Hancock was severely wounded during Pickett’s Charge; General Doubleday was not involved in the fighting on July 3 due to a neck injury sustained on July 2.)   Philippoteaux returned to his studio in Paris to commence painting the first version of his great work.  The cyclorama took two years to complete as the painter employed 20 artists to help him produce his monumental canvas, using specialists in figure, equestrian and landscape painting.


Measuring about 20,000 square feet, the cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg was a masterpiece, as the canvas magnificently recreated the climatic moments of Pickett’s Charge with breathtaking grandeur.  It was immediately praised as a “marvel of artistic learning and sentiment.”  From the topography (the looming Round Tops bathed in haze and the famous copse of trees near the Confederate High-Water Mark) to the portraiture (Winfield Scott Hancock in his full magnificence, Lewis Armistead falling dead) to the ancillary incidents of war (mangled casualties, broken fieldpieces, and a military hospital trying desperately to function in a shed amidst the horror), the cyclorama brilliantly evoked not only the drama but the sheer confusion of the battle.  Although the cyclorama was splendidly created, it depicted some factual errors: a house is present that did not exist during the battle; Confederate Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead is shot off his horse, while he was on foot when he was shot; the omission of a line of Federals tasked to shoot shirkers; and a cluster of haystacks straight out of Holland, not Pennsylvania, was displayed.


Although Paul Philippoteaux created four versions of the Gettysburg cyclorama, only the second (Boston) version survived.  He would later create replicas for both New York City and Philadelphia.  Pamphlets were created to accompany each version.  The pamphlet for the Philadelphia cyclorama (see above) consisted of the biography of Paul Philippoteaux, a description of the work’s creation, and an explanation of the different scenes of the cyclorama.  It also included a speech delivered at Gettysburg on August 27, 1883 by General Alexander S. Webb of the Philadelphia Brigade for the dedication of the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteers’ Monument.  The pamphlet has a personal account of a Union soldier who fought on the Round Tops.  Rosters of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey regiments during the battle were displayed.  At the end of the pamphlet is a letter written by former soldier Rev. J.C. Sunderlin from Flemington, New Jersey to doctors in Philadelphia who treated his injury.   Although Sunderlin was injured during the Battle of Fredericksburg when a bullet was lodged into his spine, his statement was important because the citizens were honoring their local veterans of the Civil War, and Sunderlin was able to explain how he survived his agonizing ordeal.


Philadelphia’s exhibition of the cyclorama opened its doors in 1885 at the northeast corner of the intersection of Broad and Cherry Streets. Charles Hale, a captain of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, was on hand to address the audience about the battle, and the realistic battle scenes stunned guests.  The cyclorama stayed in Philadelphia for several years before it was destroyed.

Today, the cyclorama – restored to its former glory – continues to amaze people, as they watch the Battle of Gettysburg come to life.


Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg [exhibition held on] North East Corners of Broad   and Cherry Streets, Philadelphia. Gettysburg National Military Park.  “The Gettysburg Cyclorama.”  The Battle of Gettysburg in Art. Accessed December 22, 2011.

Holzer, Harold.  “Saving the “IMAX OF ITS DAY.”  American Heritage 56, no. 4   (2005): 38-45.   Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.  Accessed December 18, 2011.

Holzer, Harold and Mark E. Neely, Jr.  “The Gettysburg Cyclorama.”  American History   54 (2003).  Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. (accessed December 17, 2011).

McPherson, James.  “Long Remember: The Summer of ’63.”  In Battle Cry of Freedom,   626-666.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

“Virtual Civil Wars.”  America’s Civil War 18, no. 3 (2005).  Academic Search Premier,  EBSCOhost. (accessed December 18, 2011).

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