Saturday, May 24, 2014

Gettysburg and Devils Den

May 24, 2014
   When I was a lad in school, I often got in trouble for talking too much and would sometimes be sent to the library, of all places, which was intended as a punishment but actually inspired me. While nosing around the stacks at Mohave County Union High School, on one of these solitary confinements I discovered a book full of Mathew Brady Civil War photographs. I loved them all, but I especially loved one photo in particular: a dead Rebel sharpshooter in a battlefield location known as Devil's Den. This photograph haunted me. The sharpshooter looked so young. I made a vow to someday stand on that exact spot which was at Gettysburg in a spot known as Devil's Den.

   Well, yesterday afternoon, I finally got to stand on the exact spot:

A lifetime dream to stand in Devi's Den on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The famous photograph is on the plaque, but unfortunately, it's washed out in the sunlight. Also, I believe it was Gardner who took the photo, not Brady, but in those old books it seemed like Mathew Brady got credit for more than he took (or, I was a careless reader and assumed it was Brady).

Of course there were other nearby places I was dying to see and stand on, like Little Round Top, The Peach Orchard and Seminary Ridge and they were all thrilling to finally see with my own eyes. This is the Confederate view from Warfield Ridge, looking across at Sickle's position on the extreme left of the Union line:

Longstreet's view from what is known today as West Confederate Avenue. Of course every square inch of the battlefield is documented—and still fought over—with dueling memorials, statues and plaques cluttering up the roadsides like a back woods yard sale, but what is so vivid when you walk the sprawling acreage is the realization that all the Rebels were fighting on ground they had never seen before and it's probably safe to say, most of the Yanks weren't familiar with the ground either. I suppose this is true of every battlefield, but the juxtaposition of random geography being utilized by giant, moving armies, with the leaders making decisions on the fly and today all those same, random spots are sanctified and carved in marble, is pretty profound.

The Visitor Center had very good displays and the film narrated by Morgan Freeman is most excellent, but the mind blower for me was the 360 degree panorama painting of the battle done by a French painter, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux. Here's just a small portion of the huge painting:

Known as the French Master of the Cyclorama, Philippoteaux, did at least eight other colossal canvases in the late 1800s, some on other battles—one in Egypt— and he is very, very good. There is not one weak rendering of horse or man in the entire epic sweep (and believe me, I was looking for one). Here's another portion of the canvas depicting cannon being brought up to the front lines:

The restoration of this epic painting is a story in itself. The painting moved around and then was cut up into smaller paintings and much of the rest was in ragged shape when they started to reassemble the thing in the 1950s. I don't even know how you would have moved the original, or how Mr. P. could have painted it unless he had a railroad roundhouse as a studio. Why this dude isn't more famous I don't know. It's a masterful, tour de force.

"War does not determine who is right—only who is left."
—Old Vaquero Saying