UK Heritage

Battles in the Round

By John Bennett

 

Echoes of the American Civil War turn up in the most unexpected places and none more so than the Pleasure Beach at Blackpool. Here, in 1910, a building called the Spectatorium was opened, in which, in a circular viewing theatre, 500 people at a time could watch a depiction of the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimack Virginia) at Hampton Roads. It is, said an excited local newspaper reporter, ". . . somewhat like a theatre, and as you sit... you have put before you the most realistic spectacular ever devised. The theme is the historic battle of Chesapeake Bay between the 'Monitor' and the 'Merrimack' and the audience witness this engagement as though actually at the scene. Water effects, sunset, moonrise, etc are all astonishingly imitated by ingenious electrical contrivances".


This was, in fact, a belated example of the cyclorama, an entertainment popular in the 19th century, in which an enormous painting - a panorama - often of an historical event, was arranged round the inside of a rotunda, with the audience standing or sitting in the middle, sometimes on a revolving platform, to the accompaniment of appropriate lighting, sound effects, music and often a spoken commentary.

 

The encounter between the first ironclads in 1862 seems a rather unusual choice for English audiences. By 1910, the American Civil War would already have been beyond the recall of many visitors, who might have been expected to be more interested in recent events, like the South African War (1899-1902) or the Russo-Japanese conflict (1904-5). The explanation, however, lies in the ownership of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach Company, which was under the control of an Anglo-American syndicate. The Spectatorium was built by W. G. Bean (who had had experience of seaside entertainment in places like Coney Island) and I. W. Outhwaite and a Mr Strickler, of the Federal Constructing Company of Chicago.

 

"The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack" was presented several times a day and appears to have continued for some years, only being replaced in 1922 with a portrayal of an event from the Great War, the naval attack on Zeebrugge. The Spectatorium, which later became a theatre with live shows, was destroyed by fire in 1939.

 

It was not the first Civil War panorama to be presented to English audiences. In 1863 Londoners had had the chance to see M. Gompertz's New Panorama of the War in America, and later that year Church's Historical Panorama of the Civil War, with "descriptive lecture and music", was at the St James's Hall in Piccadilly.

 

Although very popular in the earlier part of the 19th century, panoramas had lost much of their appeal by the 1860s. However, they underwent a revival in the 1880s and a number of European artists came to America and produced paintings of the Civil War, among them the Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux. Between 1883 and 1886, at studios in New York, he painted four versions of "The Battle of Gettysburg", showing Pickett's charge, which were exhibited at cydoramas in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Before making the first painting, Philippoteaux and his assistants spent a considerable amount of time on the Gettysburg battlefield, studying the terrain, making sketches, taking photographs and interviewing veterans, and he made further revisions for the other three versions of the panorama.

 

Another French artist, Theophile Poilpot, produced "The Battle of Manassas" and "The Great Naval Battle between Merrimack and Monitor". (Could this have been the one later exhibited at Blackpool?) Other depictions of Civil War battles were painted in Europe and shipped across the Atlantic. "The Battle of Vicksburg" by Joseph Bertrand and Lucien Sergent was transported from Paris, while Bracht, Roechling and Koch's "Battle of Missionary Ridge" was painted in Berlin before starting its journey to Kansas City via New York.

 

Milwaukee became the centre for panorama production in the United States, using German artists recruited from cities like Dresden, Frankfurt and Munich; some of these men had previously worked on panoramas of the Franco-Prussian War. The American Panorama Company, founded by the Chicago businessman William Wehner, produced two versions of "The Battle of Missionary Ridge" and two of "The Battle of Atlanta", while another Milwaukee firm produced a "Battle of Shiloh" and yet another "Battle of Gettysburg".

 

Only two of these can still be seen. The version of Paul Philippoteaux's "Battle of Gettysburg", which was exhibited at Boston between 1884 and 1892, was rescued after being found rolled up in a crate in 1904. After a further round of East Coast cities, it was brought to Gettysburg in 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, and is now on display in the Cyclorama Center.

 

"The Battle of Atlanta" was painted at Milwaukee in 1885-86 under the supervision of F W. Heine and August Lohr. In preparation for it, they and several of their assistants visited Atlanta to study the area of the battle in detail, relate it to military maps and official reports and make sketches. They were assisted by Theodore Davis, who had witnessed the battle as a staff artist for Harper's Weekly, and by Confederate veterans. After completion, it was exhibited at Detroit, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chattanooga, before being brought to Atlanta in 1892, where it replaced a version of "The Battle of Missionary Ridge" from the same studio; it has remained there ever since. The property of the city of Atlanta since 1897, it is now housed in the Atlanta Cyclorama building in Grant Park, constructed in 1921 (pictured). In the 1930s, three-dimensional foreground details, blending into the painted scene, were added, giving it even greater impact.