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Gettysburg: New visitor center features restored cyclorama

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago …”
ó William Faulkner,
“Intruder in the Dust”
GETTYSBURG, Pa. ó The mile or so that separates Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge is little more than an open field, dissected by a couple of fences and a two-lane road.
Cemetery Ridge is the higher of the plateaus, though the difference isn’t great. The incline is gradual, almost nonexistent.
Step from a tree line along Seminary Ridge and ó even on a cool day late in the year ó it’s easy to imagine the 12,500 Confederate soldiers who did the same on a hot July afternoon in 1863.
They formed ranks, unfurled their flags and set off across the field for God and glory. What they got was annihilation.
The battle ó which came to be known as “Pickett’s Charge” ó was the culmination of a three-day clash that all but ended the South’s dreams of Civil War victory.
The Confederates suffered better than 50 percent casualties in the assault that lasted less than an hour. The battlefield was blanketed by smoke, one Union soldier describing the “red mist” that resulted from Northern troops firing point-blank into the oncoming Southern troops.
I made my first trip to Gettysburg in 1967. I was 10. My family (my parents, my three brothers and I) rode in our old Ford Country Squire station wagon. Our dog, Wags, hung his head out the window all the way from North Carolina to Pennsylvania and back. We camped, which is as it should be when visiting a Civil War site.
My father was a Civil War buff and and I inherited from him my love of studying the grand event.
I’ve never done a lot of traveling, but I’ve been to Gettysburg at least 10 times. I wouldn’t admit this to just anyone, but I still get choked up on each visit, especially when I step onto the field where Pickett’s Charge played out.
Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and George Pickett were among the Southern generals who walked Seminary Ridge and the adjoining battlefields. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry rode the surrounding countryside.
The battlefields of Gettysburg have undergone numerous changes in recent decades, most of them for the better.
The hideous observation tower that for years marred the battlefied has finally been removed. A Stuckey’s restaurant built in the very field where Pickett’s men met their demise is no more.
There are hundreds of monuments around the battlefield, and the South has at last begun to get a bit of representation. (The story the battlefield guides tell is that as long as Union veterans survived, they refused the erection of memorials honoring the Southern invaders.)
Along Seminary Ridge are statues paying tribute to troops from every Southern state (North Carolina’s is a beauty, designed by Gutzon Borglum, the same man who carved the four presidents at Mount Rushmore) who fought at Gettysburg.
A statue of Lee also there along Seminary Ridge is magnificent. Another honoring Longstreet was finally erected after the importance of his role in the fight was popularized in Ted Turner’s “Gettysburg,” a 1993 release.
The finest and most recent addition to the Gettysburg attractions is the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, which opened in April after nearly three years of construction. The $103-million visitor center features 12 museum galleries, a restaurant, a bookstore, an educational movie narrated by Morgan Freeman and resource room.
There are displays of uniforms, hundreds of guns and documents detailing the path that led the nation to the Civil War.
The highlight of the visitor center is the restored cyclorama painting that was completed in 1884 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and a team of 20 assistants. The cyclorama depicts Pickett’s Charge.
Its restoration cost $11.2 million and took place from 2003 to 2008. During the midst of the restoration, 14 feet of sky that was cut from the cyclorama was restored. A priceless piece of art that was all but lost was saved.
The cyclorama’s presentation in the visitor center is well done, with guests taking an escalator to a viewing point where they’re surrounded by the painting.
The foreground has been filled with dirt, then littered with wagons, drums and guns that date to the Civil War. Paths in the foreground lead to those depicted in the cyclorama, making it almost impossible to tell where the dirt ends and the painting begins.
It’s impressive.
I don’t typically promote spending more than necessary at tourist attractions, but a bus tour of the Gettysburg battlefield that begins and ends at the visitor center is worth considering.
The guide on my tour offered tidbits about the battle that I’d never heard. One local farmer, the guide said, didn’t finish burning the more-than-80 dead horses left on his property until two months after the battle. Can you imagine the stench?
The most recent body uncovered from the battle, the guide said, was found in 1996, at the site of the first day’s fight there at Gettysburg. It was discovered when someone noticed a hand protruding from the soil.That recently-uncovered soldier was from Mississippi and had been shot by one of his comrades.
How’d they know his home and how he died? The buttons on his uniform were those of a Mississippi soldier and the bullet in his head was the type fired only by Southern troops.
Ironic, huh?
I highly recommend a visit to Gettysburg. The drive is about eight hours from Rowan County, most of it up Interstate 81 through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Lots of pretty scenery along the way.
Take the family dog and roll down the windows. You’ll both enjoy the trip.

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