The destination was an after thought. Six years ago in July having forgotten to book a place at the shore my sons, then ages 10 and 7, and I began to wonder through Central Pennsylvania looking for a long weekend. Gettysburg sounded like someplace with something to do. In the 90-plus degree heat the motor lodge with a pool next to a fast food joint directly across from the battlefield was just right.
Of course dragging the kids out of the pool that afternoon to go see the battlefield was almost as big a battle as was fought 130 years earlier. Where Abe Lincoln stood was boring and after they saw one blue and one gray uniform they had seen them all. The whining for ice cream and a return to the hotel was reaching a crescendo when we spotted the douty round fortress: the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
The Cyclorama building at Gettysburg National Military Park was built in 1962 to house artist Paul Philippoteux’s 1882 portrait of Pickets Charge. The rendition is a circular oil on canvas painting that portrays the final Confederate attack on July 3, 1863. At 26 feet high and weighing 3 tons, all 360 degrees of it overwhelms tourists. As the lights move in chronology you get the sense and feel of the fields of battle that surround you. It is a primitive motion picture featuring the special effects of the 19th century with an earthen foreground to add depth and perspective.
To my utter astonishment it held the kids spellbound. Suddenly the 6,000 acres around them were not someplace old Abe had been but someplace where real people had fought and died. The Cyclorama had brought to life those sacred fields better than any Martin Sheen movie ever could. We spent the afternoon and the next day visiting the monuments, museums and the cemetery with hardly a complaint about the heat, the crowds or the availability of the motel’s pool.
One wonders how many millions of children have had their imaginations captured by Philippoteaux’s rendition of the charge that changed the course of American history? How many people have come to the realization that every American battle in every war after it was fought by a united Republic because of the events of that afternoon?
For 37 years the Gettysburg Cyclorama has made history come alive for ordinary citizens and that history is what makes is such a shame that soon it will be destroyed. The preservationists at the National Park Service with the blessing of a hand picked advisory committee have decided that the leaky, asbestos ridden Cyclorama at Gettysburg will be torn down.
The Federal Government will move any obstacle in their rush to create a new and their version of an improved Gettysburg. And whether the obstacles are the livelihood of the merchants in Gettysburg borough or the Cyclorama, they better get out of the National Park Service’s way. Because the objective of the Park Service isn’t preservation nor is it historical correctness. The objective is money. The government hopes that by creating a theme park atmosphere on the other side of town the cash flow will be better and there will be less work for the bureaucrats. And if there is one indisputable tenant of 20th century American history it is that nothing stops the Federal Government when it wants more money and less work.
The Cyclorama’s last hope was the National Register of Historic Places but advocates attempts to protect it there failed. The Cyclorama that is so much a part of Gettysburg’s history will itself soon be history. Like so many other historic places it is doomed to the wrecking ball by the very people who were supposed to be its caretakers.
It probably has a few sad months left. Grab some kids and a camera and take them to Gettysburg. Someday soon when the National Park Service turns the Gettysburg battlefield into a Hollywood version of itself you’ll have the memories. In many ways they may be better than the trip. Then in July you can take the kids to some cheesy seashore boardwalk. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference.