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History: Gettysburg third day, Pickett’s Charge, and the Cyclorama.

cyclorama

Today is the 150th anniversary of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the climactic battle of the Civil War. The third full day of battle, July 3, 1863, began with a lull–there was no significant fighting anywhere on the field until the late afternoon. General Robert E. Lee, with his Army of Northern Virginia, decided to roll the dice and make an all-out frontal assault on the Union center at Cemetery Ridge. This operation became known as Pickett’s Charge, named after Gen. George Pickett, one of the Confederate generals who led it (though there were others–Longstreet and Armistead, for instance–who could lay equal claim to the title).

Pickett’s Charge was a disaster. 15,000 Confederate troops advanced over a mile of open ground, under fire from Union artillery and eventually muskets. Their objective was a small copse of trees on the top of the ridge. They almost made it–but the Union defenders were too well entrenched behind a stone wall, and as the Southerners charged, they cut them down. Thousands of men were killed that afternoon, and the Confederacy was doomed to lose the Civil War.

In 1883 an artist named Paul Philloppoteaux created a huge painting of this event. The mural was a 360-degree panorama of the battle, intended to be viewed from inside the cylindrical painting. This type of painting was known as a “cyclorama,” and despite experimentation with this form of painting in the late 19th century, it never really caught on. Phillopotteaux painted four versions of the cyclorama, two of which have been lost. For a long time, one of them was displayed at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where I first saw it in 1988.

The picture at the top of this blog is a view of the painting. Scenes from this painting appear in the beginning credits of the 1993 film Gettysburg.

Read more about the third day of the battle here, and the cyclorama itself here.

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