Better Than Jesus

DSC_5752The George Meade figurine being auctioned at the American Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg sold for $1,100, far more than I could justify (or afford) paying. But I was glad to see Meade fetched a higher value than any of the other generals in his booth. George Armstrong Custer sold for $900 and Philip Sheridan–a thorn in the real Meade’s side–sold for a mere $500.

My wife and I hit a couple of brewpubs last night (Battlefield Brew Works and the new ABC in the Gateway complex off Route 15) so we were moving a tad slowly this morning and missed the auction of the first Robert E. Lee and General Grant. (Yes, the wax museum had more than one Lee.) So I can’t say what they sold for. But of all the figures we saw auctioned, Meade scored the highest, beating out Stonewall Jackson ($500), Nathan Bedford Forrest ($675), John Singleton Mosby ($600), Jubal Early ($450), George Pickett ($700), and James Longstreet ($750). The Lee figure from the museum’s front hallway tied with Meade, but the Old Goggle-eyed Snapping Turtle did beat the Jesus figure from the Jackson diorama. The Son of God went for $1,000.

The auction appeared to draw a pretty big crowd and it was standing-room only when we arrived around 9:15. We left when it became apparent that even the little stuff was selling for more than we were prepared to pay. The sign for the Northern Leaders booth, the one with Meade, went for $250–about 10 times what I was prepared to pay.

I did bid on one reproduction rifle but was immediately outbid. Although I would have liked to come home with something, my bank account feels a sense of relief.

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Who Was That Waxed Man?

One of these figures does not belong. (Hint: It's the one that does not have a number.) That's Meade reclining in front of me.

One of these figures does not belong. (Hint: It’s the one that does not have a number.) That’s Meade reclining in front of me.

Last summer I did a book signing at the Gettysburg Civil War Wax Museum, also known as the National Civil War Wax Museum and the American Civil War Museum. I’m not sure what its real name is, really. Truth be told, I never went through the exhibition area. I never saw all its wax figures in their life-size dioramas recreating historic tableaux from the Civil War era.

At least not until yesterday.

The museum, which dates back to 1962 and claims to have hosted up to 9 million visitors over its history, has changed ownership and is radically revamping its exhibits. This weekend it will hold an auction to sell off the wax (actually plastic) figures as well as all the props, furniture, paintings, and other artifacts that brought the Civil War to life. Or at least something that resembled–if you squinted and suspended a reasonable quantity of disbelief–this thing called life.

Horrors of the wax museum! This is General Meade as some 9 million visitors to the National Civil War Wax Museum knew him.

Horrors of the wax museum! This is General Meade as some 9 million visitors to the National Civil War Wax Museum knew him.

Among the artifacts to be auctioned off is a life-size George Gordon Meade.

I had to check it out. So yesterday my wife and I jumped in the car and headed south to Gettysburg for an auction preview. It was like getting a free ticket to the Wax Museum, except this time they let visitors go into the dioramas. And all the historical figures wore numbers, as though they had escaped from Civil War wax jail.

It was all a little creepy, but I guess a good wax museum should be. And it was tremendously old-fashioned, the kind of family entertainment that went out of style with coonskin caps and Ovaltine.  I have to admit, though, there is something endearing about these earnest displays and their somewhat grotesque inhabitants and I feel a little guilty when I poke fun at them. If it had stuck around longer maybe the museum would have become retro-chic and found a new audience. I know that for people who grew up around Gettysburg the wax museum–like the old Electric Map–was part of their childhoods. Time passes on; ways change. I suspect today’s youth would not find the exhibits to be particularly compelling.

In any event, I’m heading back down for the auction. It’s not every day you get to bid on a life-size Meade.

To be continued.

The Wax Museum answered the oft-asked question, "What would the surrender at Appomattox have looked like it enacted by zombies?

The Wax Museum answered the oft-asked question, “What would the surrender at Appomattox have looked like it enacted by zombies?

If two heads are better than one, what is this better than?

If two heads are better than one, what is this better than?

Stonewall Jackson lies mortally wounded in the Wilderness. He still has enough presence of mind to have the commander of the famed "Jesus Brigade" arrested for allowing too much straggling.

Stonewall Jackson lies mortally wounded in the Wilderness. He still has enough presence of mind to have the commander of the famed “Jesus Brigade” arrested for allowing too much straggling.

The Calm Before the Storm (May 2, 1863)

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Meade’s short note to his wife, written on May 2, is laced with unintentional irony. Indeed, as he noted, some Union officers did believe that the Confederates were evacuating their positions while the Army of the Potomac waited in the Wilderness around Chancellorsville. However, the rebels they saw moving off in the distance, glimpsed through a gap in the trees, were actually the men under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, making a 17-mile march on their way to fall on the unsuspecting Union right. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

“Lee and Jackson intended to end the Union swaggering, and the battlefield’s driving tour takes me to the Lee-Jackson Bivouac, the place where they determined how they would do it. This quiet spot in the woods at the intersection of the Old Plank and Furnace Roads is holy ground in Southern Civil War lore. On the night of May 1 Lee and Jackson met here to plot the destruction of Joe Hooker’s army. As they consulted their maps and talked with their scouts, they realized the Federals appeared vulnerable on their right, where Howard’s XI Corps rested with its flank “in the air,” meaning it had no solid anchor. All Howard had shielding the right of the Union line was the thick, tangled forest of the Wilderness. Howard thought this was protection enough, but Lee and Jackson, sitting on cracker boxes as they talked into the night, believed otherwise.

“Lee never lacked audacity, and the plan he hatched on the night of May 1 may have been his most audacious move yet. Although badly outnumbered, and with part of his army still confronting Sedgwick behind Fredericksburg, he decided to divide his army even more by sending Jackson and thirty thousand men on a wide swing against the Union right while he remained in place only about fifteen thousand men to distract the rest of the Federals.

“Jackson set out the next morning, his long column of men marching four abreast down narrow trails through the forest. The line stretched for almost ten miles–two hours after the head of the column began marching the tail end had yet to move. It was a huge, gray-clad, and tattered serpent snaking through the Virginia woods, making slow but steady progress to pounce on unsuspecting prey. At the ironworks of Catharine Furnace, of which only a single chimney remains today, the column veered south on its roundabout course. Once it reached the Brock Road it turned north, heading for the Plank Road and the unsuspecting men of the XI Corps.

“Jackson’s movement did not remain a secret from Hooker’s army, though. The marching troops were clearly visible off in the distance as they passed a clearing. Union artillery took the opportunity to send some shells their way. Hooker sent a message to Howard and Slocum. ‘We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right,’ it warned. ‘Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe, in order to obtain timely information of their approach.’ He warned Howard that he was not in position to withstand a flank attack. In response Howard did pretty much nothing.”

Meade’s short note, written from a then-quiet battlefield, is his last communication home before the Battle of Chancellorsville began in earnest.

We have had no great fighting as yet, though Sykes’s division, of my corps, had quite a skirmish yesterday. It is doubtful what the enemy are going to do, but many believe they are evacuating.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 370. Available via Google Books.