Didn’t think there was a Frankenstein connection to the Gettysburg battlefield. Read our guest post by Seasonal Park Ranger Chuck Teague and learn otherwise:
Valuable perspectives on the Battle of Gettysburg can be gained from many sources: official reports, diaries, letters, photographs, maps, sketches, journal articles, memoirs, artifacts, etc. But one resource mostly overlooked involves paintings.
Granted, the massive canvases of Paul Phillipoteaux and Peter Rothermel have been heralded for decades. The former’s Cyclorama now displayed in the GNMP Museum and Visitor Center has astonished people for decades. And the latter’s paintings displayed in the Pennsylvania State Museum are also awesome in their scope.
An artist of our battlefield whose works are well worth pondering is George Leo Frankenstein. Born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1825, he immigrated to America with his family at the age of six. The parents and five children settled in Cincinnati among a blossoming German population who lovingly called their new hometown “Zinzinnati.” The Frankenstein family, quite unconnected to Mary Shelley’s monster creator, had actually changed their name from Tracht upon arriving in America.
The Frankensteins became respected in the area for their artistic abilities, and young George Leo was apprenticed by his five-year-older brother Godfrey as a landscape artist. In an era of grand panoramas, they created one of Niagara Falls which George then exhibited across the country. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Commissary Department of the War Department in support of the armies. As the staggering scope of the war became evident, Frankenstein set for himself the challenge of visiting the major battlefields of Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and, of course, Gettysburg, painting the landscapes. Altogether he ventured over 3000 miles, much of it by foot, in the cause of depicting for posterity the ground on which Americans had bled and died.
In 1866 he spent much of the summer wandering the fields of Gettysburg, setting up his easel at various locations. At two critical sites—East Cemetery Hill and the fields of Pickett’s Charge—he worked on creating panoramas by doing multiple small pieces on paper.
One of the values in studying his paintings is in seeing important terrain features not well recorded in photographs, such as Benner’s Hill, Zeigler’s Grove, and Power’s Hill. The 360 degree panorama from East Cemetery Hill, done from the location of the present-day Hancock equestrian statue, is especially remarkable. The artillery lunettes are still prominent. Looking to the north, it is possible to pick out a number of buildings in the town, with the Almshouse and Barlow’s Knoll beyond. It is no wonder that Major General Oliver Otis Howard exclaimed, “This is a good place for a battle.”
Perhaps the most revealing painting was one done from the National Cemetery from a point near where the Lincoln Speech Memorial now stands. Looking in the southwest direction, the open fields of fire for 11th Corps artillery is startlingly apparent. The Brien and Codori homesteads are clearly seen from Cemetery Hill, as is the Copse and Pitzer Woods. Indeed, Maryland is quite visible in the distance!
Frankenstein had the dream of receiving a commission from the War Department for his paintings of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Vicksburg, and other grand battlefields, but, alas, interest waned and George refocused into other pursuits, including becoming a journalist, poet, drama critic, and elocutionist.
The portfolio of Frankenstein paintings eventually was dispersed. Gettysburg National Military Park is privileged to have three of these battlefield paintings in its collection, and others have come into the collections of other national parks. Special Collections at the Gettysburg College library has a couple dozen or so.
It is fitting that these paintings are again coming to light during the sesquicentennial of the war, as they draw us back to images of Hallowed Ground well before the disruption of modernity.
Seasonal Park Ranger Chuck Teague