Gettysburg in the Rain

meade statue

Meade's display in the Gettysburg visitor center museum (Tom Huntington).

Meade’s display in the Gettysburg visitor center museum (Tom Huntington).

It was gray and drizzly yesterday but my wife, Beth Ann, and I decided to head down to Gettysburg anyway. It was not a day for hiking around the battlefield, so we stuck to the visitor center instead. Beth Ann had never been through the new museum and Cyclorama and I had not had a chance to see the temporary “Treasures of the Civil War” exhibit. Despite the weather we found the parking lot at the visitor center to be pretty full, and plenty of people inside (although it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it was in July). I checked the bookstore to make sure they had plenty of copies of Searching for George Gordon Meade and Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments on hand. (They did.) Then we watched the movie and took in the Cyclorama program.

I’m still blown away by the Cyclorama. It remains an impressive achievement, even in this era of CGI. The level of detail in the painting is magnificent. We spotted Meade off in the distance and one of the staff members on hand pointed out John Gibbon, Winfield Scott Hancock, Alexander Webb, and other generals. I was not convinced about the identify of Henry Hunt, though, because the figure indicated did not have Hunt’s beard–but what do I know? The man also showed us the figure of Abraham Lincoln that artist Paul Philippoteaux had inserted into his huge canvas. We all know that Lincoln wasn’t really on the battlefield (if memory serves, he was busy fighting a trainload of vampires at the time) but Philippoteaux wanted to include the late president as a symbolic gesture.

Then it was on through the museum and finally to the “Treasures” exhibit. I had wanted to see this small display for some time because it includes a bunch of Meade artifacts, including his glasses, boots, hat, and frock coat. It also had the gorgeous, jewel encrusted sword that the Pennsylvania Reserves had presented to him in August 1863. It was a beautiful object, indeed, though I had to agree with Meade’s assessment that “It seems a pity, though, to waste so much money on an article that from its great value is actually rendered useless.”

Meade's presentation sword (Tom Huntington).

Meade’s presentation sword (Tom Huntington).

After some beers at the Reliance Mine Saloon and dinner at Gettysburg Eddie’s, it was time to head home through a driving rain. All in all, not a bad way to spend a day.

The general and his glasses (Tom Huntington).

The general and his glasses (Tom Huntington).

Nothing Lasts Forever

The old Cyclorama Building meets its Waterloo.

The old Cyclorama Building meets its Waterloo.

I went down to Gettysburg yesterday to do some work in the library at the visitor center and walk along the old trolley bed that circles around Devil’s Den, part of my research for an upcoming magazine article. It was an interesting day. As I was drove around the battlefield I listened the news reports from Rome, where a crowd of some 100,000 people were waiting in St. Peter’s Square for the announcement of the new Pope. On the battlefield I was passing over land where history had already happened as I heard about new history being made.

Before going to library I stopped to watch the work crews that were tearing down the old Cyclorama Building. Constructed in 1962 to house Paul Philippoteaux’s huge, 360-degree painting of the fighting on the battle’s third day, the building had outlived its usefulness once the Cyclorama had been removed for installation in the new visitor center. Some preservationists wanted to save the building but the park service was determined to tear it down and restore the landscape on Cemetery Ridge to something closer to its appearance in July 1863. Since I had never been inside the old Cyclorama Building I had no nostalgic ties to it and I was glad to hear that it was going away. The big concrete structure just didn’t belong there.

At the library I was amused to come across a quote from the building’s architect, Richard Neutra. Back in 1959 he said this about his design: “The building will last forever. Many honored guests will come here and many distinguished speaker[s] will speak. Their speeches must be brief because the building itself is most important and comes first. This building will be a shrine for many nations and the free world . . . . It is a building for eternity because it has deeper characters than any of the finest buildings  in the world.”