I grew up in Pennsylvania, near Valley Forge and Independence Hall, two of the most exalted places in American history. But it was always a little town to the west that stole the show - Gettysburg, where thousands fought to the death for the very soul of our country.
And yet, despite numerous school field trips and family visits, Gettysburg and its sprawling Civil War battlefield always left me a little cold. I know that's heresy, especially for a native Pennsylvanian. Even worse, one of my ancestors was a Civil War veteran.
However, during two recent visits, I discovered that the town and the battlefield are undergoing changes that give a profound sense of meaning to those amazing three days.
For the past decade, the National Park Service and the private, nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation have been working to restore the battlefield to its original condition. This is being accomplished by, among other things, removing a motel and relocating the visitor center, which had been built on land where almost 1,000 men died.
There are new ways to see the battlefield, too - on horseback and by bicycle. The town of Gettysburg is much improved, also, with a beautifully landscaped square and fascinating walking tours. Not to mention that the area around Gettysburg is a pretty drive, especially in the fall.
On Friday, the park service and the foundation will unveil their latest success - a restored Victorian masterpiece known as the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
The Cyclorama, a 12Â¿-ton painting-in-the-round, depicts the final moments of Day 3 in the battle, when Confederate Gen. George Pickett's soldiers made their ill-fated charge at Union troops.
The unveiling of the restored painting also officially opens the battlefield's new visitor center. To mark the occasion, the center will exhibit - for three days only - one of Abraham Lincoln's manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address.
The Cyclorama, a magnificent work that measures 377 feet by 42 feet - longer than a football field if stretched out - was displayed at the old visitor center site, but never correctly. The room it was in was too small for it, and the 1884 painting was dirty and had been chopped off at the top to fit.
But after five years of painstaking restoration - 1.4 million square inches cleaned with what looked like big Q-tips - the painting now hangs at full size in the new visitor center. And it's glorious.
To create the work, French artist Paul Philippoteaux assembled a team of the best horse painters, portrait painters and landscape painters. But I recall the Cyclorama from long-ago visits as a big, boring circle. Then I saw it again in August for a preview visit, and I was captivated. Cleaned of more than 100 years of dirt, the painting glows, and it lives.
Panel-by-panel, Philippoteaux's artists transform mere paint into anguish, desperation, pain, death, determination. When I ascended the Cyclorama's viewing platform, I felt the battle rage on all sides, and the experience had a sobering power. I finally understood why Civil War veterans wept when they saw the painting.
Philippoteaux wanted to create more than a powerful piece of art, however. He wanted viewers to experience the battle as much as possible, so his design included a three-dimensional diorama that "continues" each panel right up to the viewing platform.
In one scene, for example, painted wagon ruts continue seamlessly onto the diorama. In another panel, the artist painted a tripod with only two legs - the third being a real piece of wood in the diorama that completes the scene.
A new sound-and-light show also has been created for the painting, narrated by actress Glenn Close and featuring the voices of actors Ben Affleck and Tim Daly.
Though the Cyclorama is a powerful new addition, the building that houses it - officially the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park - is worth spending several hours in all by itself.
The center's bookstore/shop is spacious, well-organized and classy. There's a new introductory film narrated by Morgan Freeman. The airy cafeteria features the usual modern fare plus some Civil War-era recipes. I especially liked the roasted peanut soup with hardtack crackers.
I liked the visitor center museum best of all, though. I'd characterize the old museum as "stuff in a case." This one uses that "stuff" to tell compelling stories - and not just about the Battle of Gettysburg.
Changes make the three-day Civil War battle more vivid for modern-day visitors
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