by Michael Sappol
Once upon a time, long before immersive video games, the History Channel and IMAX cinema, History was Big, heroic, epic, and full of Great Men and Great Wars. Big painters painted big wall-sized history paintings of events that were real (but improved upon for dramatic effect), which won big awards and hung in big galleries. And big crowds came to marvel.
The biggest, most spectacular painting of them all was the “cyclorama”: an extravagant 360° floor-to-ceiling panoramic experience;—a painting so grand (really a series of paintings on canvas stitched together) that it required its own dedicated space, a cyclorama building. At 50¢ a pop (25¢ for children), cycloramas packed ‘em in. Until a few seasons passed. Then the novelty wore off; audiences started to dwindle. And the painting (snipped or added on to, to fit a slightly different space) moved on to other cities and other cyclorama buildings, where new audiences could marvel at the deteriorating grandeur and novelty of it all.
A small piece of that world washed up on the shores of the Surgeon General’s Library (as the National Library of Medicine was then called) on May 7, 1918: a catalogue booklet for a cyclorama experience of the Battle of Gettysburg. The painting was then on display in Baltimore, after showings over several decades in Boston, New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere.
In truth there was no good reason why the Library should have acquired it. There is nothing particularly medical about the booklet or painting, except that many soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle—over 40,000 by most estimates—and the wounded required medical attention. The catalogue briefly mentions (on page 26) that a section of the painting shows a shed where surgeons treated casualties and some wounded men lying in the shade of nearby haystacks. Nothing else. But the Surgeon General’s Library, aka the Army Medical Library, was very much a military institution, and the country was at the time engaged in another terrible conflict, the “Great War” (which was soon to get its own cyclorama paintings). The librarians and administrators had reason to be interested.
The “Battle of Gettysburg” was painted by Paul Philippoteaux (1846-1923), a Parisian artist who specialized in cycloramas. Aided by a team of assistants, he did a number of battles: the Paris Commune, the Belgian Revolution of 1830, the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt, battles of the Russo-Turkish War. For the Battle of Gettysburg, he visited the battlefield, interviewed Union generals, and based his sketches on panoramic photographs of the site. The painting took eighteen months to finish, was nearly 100 yards long, weighed six tons, and was supplemented with artifacts, sculptures, stone walls, trees and fences. It opened to the public in Chicago in 1883. (A veteran of the battle is said to have openly wept upon seeing it.) Eventually four versions circulated. One of them can be seen in a recently restored and partly reconstructed version at the Cyclorama in Gettysburg itself, where today the nation marks the 150th anniversary of that terrible battle.
Paul Philippoteaux, Battle of Gettysburg . . . (Brooklyn, NY: Eagle Book Printed Dep’t., ). 40 p.,  leaf of plates: illus.; 23 cm. W6 P3 v.7481 box 437 no.5.
Michael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.
By 1918, the still-extant version of the Cyclorama first displayed in Boston had been on display in Gettysburg for five years. This booklet was published for another of the four original versions, exhibited in Brooklyn from 1886-7, and in Manhattan’s Union Square from 1887-1892, when it was disassembled and shipped to Washington. Most of its contents were reproduced from earlier guides assembled for the cycloramas in Chicago and Boston.
You’re almost certainly correct that it was collected solely as a martial curiosity. But from the perspective of modern medicine, the cyclorama actually has some interesting lessons to impart. Veterans didn’t simply cry; more than a few experienced what sound, to the modern ear, suspiciously like episodes of PTSD. One shouted to his companion: “Down, Bill, down! By t’ Lord, there’s a feller sightin’ his gun on us!” Another found he “couldn’t look at the suffering men” and instead looked at the landscape. The hyper-realism of the cyclorama made possible experiences that wouldn’t be replicated for another century, but the Army now experiments with Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy.
One of the great benefits, and pleasures, of interactive networked life, is that when you post something online you enter into an almost instantaneous dialog with readers, some of whom know a lot about the subject at hand. The NLM’s copy of the Gettysburg Cyclorama pamphlet omits basic information about its printing date and history of editions and revisions, and the history of different iterations of the cyclorama–and the NLM catalog record is largely based on what the pamphlet says about itself–and so is my blog. When I wrote it I was only able to do a brief search of the scholarly literature on the cycloramas, and was acutely aware of these limitations. I was hoping that the blog would be read by professional historians or Civil War buffs who have expert knowledge and who would write in comments, with more, and more accurate, information. Yoni did just that. So thank you, Yoni.
What we’re seeing is the emergence of a new kind of “crowd-source” scholarship, not far removed from the Wikipedia model. The end result will be that the community of interested people will know more about these rich nooks and crannies of our history (and NLM cataloguers can use this knowledge to improve our catalog records).
To take it a step further, I invite Yoni and other readers, to say more in this Comments section about the Gettysburg cycloramas and other cycloramas, if they have more to tell us, and also, to suggest relevant articles, book chapters, websites, etc. (I’m a bit spooked about Army experiments, and Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy sounds scary. So I’ll leave that for some other blogger to take up.)
I am writing the first spreadsheet from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas.These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. Info to share. firstname.lastname@example.org