Civil War, Gettysburg, monument, painting, glorification, American history
In this way you look out on the perfectly painted sky… with nothing whatever between you & the landscape.—General John Gibbon, Union army 2nd Corps
Outside the Visitor Center—patrons queuing up in khaki camo shorts, baseball caps, Where Big Bucks Lie, boxes of MoonPies wheeling by—two black men with rubber gloves, with Windex, on a July Monday, polish the bronze Lincoln. His massive hands. A crown of flies. The mothers kneel before braided girls and deliver unto them their palms of glistening sunblock. Five boys are pinned with badges, are aiming their bottles of pop like rifles, at Laura, quick to dive behind some benevolent skirt. The fathers. Biceps white and Semper Fi–ed. Faithful, always, to the easy turning away, the How about those…. Finally, glass doors shirring wide, a stream of air, cool as metal, admits the line inside. [End Page 136]
Step inside the center. Leave behind the liter-Cokes, boiled hot dogs, the Skittles melting to a child’s palm. Leave behind the texts, the seventh-grade history. See with what valor the men in gray rise toward Pickett’s Charge to be picked from Earth like ants. The argument is to remove simile from the picture. To let realism reign. Look closer—the most exact feature is made from abstract streaks. Blocks of color, blurred brushstrokes. So faithful, from afar, veterans claimed it was he who slumped against the oak’s good weight. We laid you / upon your long bed, and our officers / wept hot tears like rain and cropped their hair. The bayonets and buckles held a certain gleam—tinsel. Workers hauled sod by the cartload, fixed the foreground with relics. Fences, canteens. A shoe. None were embalmed with honey. Their horses bloated under heavy rain.
You see the horses first. One just fallen, on the dirt path toward Vicksburg, dappled gray. His soldier crushed. A rebel cuts another from the carriage’s ropes. Foreground: blood along a tawny neck. One—white, majestic—bucks his rider, is always bucking his rider, forever, from history. Might it be easy to look away from the surgeon’s bone saw. From the man slung between two others like a sack of flour. The barn wall left gaping, red brick exposed around the edges. Like flesh. The stone wall singed black. Meade holds and holds, but barely. Cannons bruise the air, the open field (Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, Eighth Ohio) moans. The grey wave crying / unearthly lamentation over the water of the wheat, the rippling smoke. Never can the low stone become crossable. Never can the blond youth slump back atop his steed, the saber unstick itself from the rib-gap, nor the flesh above the knee. It’s hard not to admire the trees—dwarfing our toy drama. They rise in plumes, toward…some thing. Three hundred seventy-seven feet of canvas tacked around the room. [End Page 137]
When Boston tired of viewing the battle, it took an entire day just to roll up the canvas. Poor panorama. Poor painted soldiers molding in a vacant lot, history too large to store—all its tons. Poor
Paul Philippoteaux who chose this moment to paint (tattered gray, death march across the farm’s slow fences) as if it could have been otherwise. As if the South hadn’t only overshot (visibility poor
for smoke, bullets sailing over the high blue caps) here. How art makes its masterpiece regardless, its illusion. In the round room, a narrator seals us inside our fate. The lights dim. The smoke pours
through the landscape beautifully (rosy-fingered, almost)—we hear the cannons first. Then dawn speeds up. We’re flung straight through to lyric. We, astonished readers of history, lean forward. But
the thick railing holds us back. Denies the moment. We are some shameless wheel, churning clockwise around the room. Once we spoke respectfully, in the lobby, of grandchildren, two-for-one
specials, cold beer. It was before these men were born. Before the cotton-boll split its firm seed for canvas. Before the pines were tapped for turpentine. We ascended...