Gettysburg museum battle dioramas accurate _ but with cats
GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Imagine, for a moment, that the Civil War had been fought by cats
Yeah, it’s a stretch, cats not being the most strategic thinkers in the animal kingdom - or the most courageous, seeing that they go hide under the bed whenever company comes over. And cats would also be problematic from a military point of view, considering their seeming inability to follow basic instructions - a deliberate choice because, well, they’re cats.
On the other hand, it would have injected some much-needed humor into Ken Burns’ documentary about the Civil War. (Burns doesn’t display much of a sense of humor in his work, but to be fair, there wasn’t a great deal of comedy to be mined from the War Between the States.)
You can imagine what it would have sounded like, having Sam Waterston reading a letter that began, “My dearest Snowball, I cannot wait to feel the sandpapery scratch of your tongue on my ears again, my love. The war effort is one that truly tests the souls of felines. We are running dangerously low on Kit ’n Kaboodle, and the stench of cat pee in the air is overbearing, stinging the eyes and burning the throat. Sgt. Fluffy has apparently been stricken with a terminal case of hairballs. Battle is a weary exercise. The other day, we encountered a brigade of Rebels, and I am overwhelmed with pride to say that we stood our ground, hissing at one another. The standoff lasted forever and was broken only when a chipmunk scooted by and we all chased it. Except Private Monkey who laid down and began licking himself. War is hell. Yours forever, Whiskers.”
Anyway, you don’t have to imagine it. You can just head to Gettysburg and check out Civil War Tails in Gettysburg. The museum, housed in a home that dates to 1869 and once served as the girls’ dorm for the soldiers’ orphanage, features detailed, to scale, and historically accurate dioramas of the battle of Gettysburg and other Civil War battles and camps - except for one detail.
All of the figures in the dioramas are cats.
The centerpiece, the first diorama you encounter when you enter, is a depiction of Pickett’s Charge. The topography of the battlefield is reproduced in detail, and from a distance, it appears that the thousands of little soldiers are arrayed as they were on July 3, 1863. Look closer and you notice that the soldiers have tails. And they’re cats, crafted from clay, the detail astonishing, down to the braids on the caps.
The battlefield is littered with dead cats, covered with blood. Rebecca Brown, who runs the museum with her twin sister Ruth, says it really brings home the carnage of the battle. People can imagine dead human beings, but seeing dead cats strikes a chord, since a lot of people seem to like cats more than people. So many dead cats. Some of them have limbs blown off. None have heads blown off. They made cats with their heads blown off, but Rebecca said it seemed like a little too much. “We’ll do arms and legs, but not heads,” she said.
Reactions to the depiction of the battle run the gamut. Some kids wonder whether the hurt cats will be all right. Others say, “Cool, dead cats.” Yet others stare in disbelief and ask Rebecca, “Why cats?”
Rebecca doesn’t have an answer. Well, she does. It’s simply, “We were 11.”
The other answer is, “Cats are easier to make than people.” Crafting tiny faces from clay, Rebecca said, is “annoying.”
It started when the Brown sisters were 11. They grew up in suburban Philadelphia and had read biographies of generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. They set about making figurines of the generals out of clay, and because they loved cats, they depicted Grant and Lee as cats. “We were 11,” Rebecca said. “I don’t know what we were thinking.”
As they read more about the Civil War, they made more figurines depicting the officers and soldiers they had read about - as cats. They began making dioramas, depicting the battles that they read about. They took them to the nursing home where they worked to show the residents, who were delighted, if not a bit puzzled, by the portrayal of the soldiers as cats. They were homeschooled and began showing their works to other homeschooled students. In 2012, someone suggested they begin taking them to schools. The dioramas, apart from the cats, were historically accurate, down the shape and placement of boulders protruding from the ground. Rebecca and Ruth also knew the history and the stories of what occurred in the scenes they depicted in cat form.
They started doing that. But it proved to be difficult. Pickett’s Charge covered a lot of ground, and moving it wasn’t easy. Rebecca said she and her sister decided to seek a permanent home for their dioramas after they dropped Pickett’s Charge and all of the cats’ hats fell off. We’re talking thousands of hats.
They looked around Gettysburg for a home. It was a natural, Gettysburg being a destination for Civil War buffs and home of their favorite battle of the war. They found the old dorm on Baltimore Street and bought it. The museum occupies the first floor, and they live on the second with Kitty, their 19-year-old housecat. (Rebecca runs the museum full-time and Ruth works as an attorney in town. They are 34 now.)
There is a diorama of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, complete with a string of cats rolling barrels of gunpowder away from the smoking armory. There is one showing the 4th New York Light Artillery hauling their guns into Devil’s Den. There is one depicting the battle between the ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack, “manned” by cat sailors. There is one of Union Gen. George Meade’s headquarters after it was damaged by cannon fire before Pickett’s Charge. That one includes a carriage drawn by two horses, one of which is missing a back leg, blown off by a cannonball, a historically accurate fact that they read about while researching the battle.
And then there is the diorama of the infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp in Andersonville, a depiction that has a personal connection to the sisters. Their great-great-grandfather’s half-brother, Luke, who served with the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, died in the Georgia POW camp. He is depicted, as a cat, in the diorama, sitting alongside William Gilchrist, the brother of an ancestor of one of their college friends. Gilcrest, who survived, is depicted down to his rad hair and beard. Elsewhere in the camp, prisoners are shown playing cards, or cooking, or even fighting. There is a pile of dead bodies by the camp entrance. Well, dead cats. The Andersonville diorama is dedicated to Luke Brown’s memory. (Since the war, there has always been someone in the family named Luke.)
Their depiction of the battle of Little Round Top is a work in progress. The landscape is nearly done, depicted to scale from photographs and topographical maps. Cats skirmish in the trees. Cat soldiers carry wounded cats from the battlefield on litters to be treated by cat medics at an aide station.
To the side, on a shelf, are the figures of Grant and Lee, seated at a table, negotiating terms of Lee’s surrender. They are cats, of course.
Historical accuracy is paramount, Rebecca said.
“We’ve had people come in who actually admitted that they thought they wouldn’t like it,” Rebecca said, adding that it’s puzzling to her why people who think they wouldn’t like representations of the Civil War as fought by cats would even walk in. “When they come in, they assume it will be more cutesy. But once they see that everything is historically accurate, they appreciate it. It’s just that the soldiers have tails.”
The entire enterprise is, well, impressive. “Obsessive is a better word,” Rebecca said. “You don’t start out when you’re 11 saying, ‘I’m going to make eight-and-a-half thousand cats in dioramas about the Civil War.’ You make one, then two and before you know it...”
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com