There’s nothing quite like walking through a sleeping museum on a sunny morning. Most of the dioramas are in shadow, but here and there, a shaft of light blazes across, highlighting a small portion of a scene. A camera hardly does it justice, but we try anyway! Enjoy today’s collection of a few “sunlight and shadow” mornings at Civil War Tails.
In 1995, Rebecca read biographies on Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Then, she made our first clay Civil War cats—Grant and Lee. People sometimes ask why we didn’t do one army as cats and the other as dogs. It’s a logical question, and even when we would play Robin Hood as kids, we would be cats which meant the imaginary Sheriff of Nottingham and other “bad guys” would be dogs. So, why didn’t one general come out as a dog?
The simple answer is Rebecca liked both generals, so they were both “good guys” and therefore cats. This is probably counterintuitive to the polarized opinions today. But history is complex, not cut-and-dried, and we have always enjoyed reading the stories of people. It never mattered to us which side they fought on, or what color their skin. There were cool guys (and gals) throughout the thirty-four states of the Union (yes, that includes the eleven that seceded). So, enjoy a few of the snippets of human life and glimpses of real people that have “stuck” with us through years of being Civil War buffs.
One of the stories that first caught Rebecca’s interest (and, since it involves a horse, probably cemented Grant as a “cool guy”) was told in that first biography she read. While at West Point, Grant was average in his studies, but extremely skilled at riding. When on a horse, he seemed part of the animal. One horse at West Point, named Big York, was notoriously hard to handle and no one could ride him. Grant not only succeeded in riding the sorrel, but jumped him over a 6-foot-high rail!
Often, emotion draws us to a story. Sometimes it is the pathos, as with Gen. Richard Garnett, who led his brigade in Pickett’s Charge on horseback, because he could not walk after being kicked by a horse. He could have sat it out, instead of making himself a target on Red Eye. But he rode because, in 1862, “Stonewall” Jackson had accused him of cowardice, and even though anyone who knew Garnett knew he was no coward, he still felt he must regain his honor. That day he was killed, and his body was never found.
Sometimes, you wish a story could have a different ending each time you read it, like that of Gen. Stephen Ramseur, a Confederate brigade commander at Cedar Creek. Only 27 years old, he wore his best uniform with a flower in a buttonhole, celebrating the birth of his first child. He hoped for a victory so he could secure a furlough and return home to see his wife and baby. Instead, he was shot through the lungs and mortally wounded. He never even knew if the newborn was a boy or a girl (she was a girl).
Humor often makes a story or individual memorable. Any time I think of Prof. Thaddeus Lowe’s observation balloons, I think of the story of Gen. David Porter ascending in one, only to have the guide lines snap. As the balloon began to drift away, men on the ground shouted up to the general to pull the release valve. He did so and the balloon promptly dropped—and landed smack on top of a tent full of officers eating breakfast! Despite the chaos that must have resulted, Gen. Porter nonchalantly climbed down from the balloon and walked away as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes it’s just a tidbit we find amusing. Col. Wladimir Krzyzanowski served in the Union XI Corps. He caught our fancy when we were in high-school, but not because of anything he did—so why does he stick in our minds? Partly because he was good-looking, but also because of the trouble people had in pronouncing his Polish name. His division commander Gen. Carl Schurz maintained that this was the reason Congress did not confirm Krzyzanowski’s promotion to brigadier general. In the army, fellow officers avoided the difficulty by dubbing him “Kriz.” If you’re also puzzled about the pronunciation, a Park Ranger at Gettysburg once mentioned that he had asked some Polish tourists, and they suggested it might have been “shevs-now-ski” or thereabouts. No wonder they nicknamed him!
We all find stories interesting, whether fiction or non-fiction, social media or family emails, gossip or news. But sometimes it’s just nice to set aside the drama of everyday life, sit back, and read a good story. With history, the added bonus is that the characters really existed!
’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Civil War Tails, not a creature was stirring, not even the “kittens” (or squirrels, or whatever it was on the third floor). The humans had gone to the Christmas Eve service at their church, and Kelly the Museum Dog sat downstairs, staring up at the big tree. Three other trees and a lot of plastic greenery filled the rest of the museum. Kelly knew better than to eat any of it, although she had tried a few Styrofoam berries off a “pick.”
“I have to be honest,” the dog sighed to the thousands of clay cat-soldiers around her. “I don’t understand this ‘Christmas’ thing at all. A lot of bustle and plastic branches walking everywhere, different music, and blinking lights. It’s weird, and I don’t understand it. The humans talk like I should be excited about tomorrow, but I don’t know why!”
Lieutenant Frank Haskell trotted over to the edge of the Pickett’s Charge diorama and offered, “The humans are excited and happy, and they want you to share that. You will get some turkey—”
“Like at Thanksgiving?” Kelly perked up and licked her chops. She had already begun to drool.
“Yes. Almost exactly like Thanksgiving. And they probably have gifts for you, like they do for each other.”
“Like when they go shopping?” Kelly thumped her tail. “Only this time, I’ll be allowed into the plastic bags?”
“I remember one year when they wrapped cat treats for Kitty,” Lieut. Haskell said. “She was the Museum Cat before you came.”
“Yes, I hear them talk about her,” Kelly replied respectfully, but she still was not sure about cats as pets. She shook herself and said, “So that’s what Christmas is? Turkey and presents? That sounds like a good day.”
“For some, that’s all Christmas is,” General Stephen Ramseur said from where he had been admiring the white tree in the next room. “Glitter, lights, feel-good songs, family and traditions.
“But that is not all of it. For some of us, Christmas is a painful time. I was killed in October 1864, before I met my newborn child. I did not see her first Christmas, and she never had her father present at Christmastime. But even someone mourning a loved one can experience the joy of Christmas.”
“How can you be happy when you can’t have your family with you?” Kelly shuddered. She had been alone long enough and did not want to think about losing her new family.
“Real joy is much deeper than a happy feeling,” Gen. Ramseur explained. “Just like real love is much more than a warm, cozy feeling towards another person.”
“What makes real joy?” Kelly asked.
“Knowing that God loves you no matter who you are and no matter what happens, and that you will spend forever with him. This world’s troubles pale in comparison to that love.
“How do people know that God loves them? Christmas. Christmas is about God coming to Earth as a human baby. Then he died for humans’ sins. People are not inherently good like so many think. They are prone to rebel against God, and only he can fix that. Jesus, who is God the Son, came to take the punishment for man’s sin so that his own perfect obedience and righteousness could be applied to people who believe in him. To do that, he had to be God and Man, and Christmas is about his becoming man.
“Because of what Jesus did, God forgives the sins of those who believe in him; Jesus already paid for their sins. When people recognize what he did for them, they have joy that is more than just happiness.”
“This is too much for me to understand,” Kelly sighed.
Chaplain Luther French from the 20th Maine chimed in, “Do you remember when you came here, in February and March, how you were pulling on the leash and jumping on museum visitors, and the humans would tell you not to?”
Kelly hung her head. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Imagine a dog who followed the rules perfectly every time coming to you and saying you could have the credit for his perfect obedience, and he would take the lectures and correction that you deserved. Imagine that on a much bigger scale and how happy you would be whenever you remembered the day he came—and the day he took your place, which,” he added, “would be the Easter story.”
“I don’t know how I could ever thank a dog like that,” Kelly murmured. “That would be a good day!”
“That is what your family will celebrate tomorrow.”
Kelly lay down, staring up at the bright tree. “The decorations are nice, and the turkey will be amazing, but now I understand that for my humans, the real reason for Christmas is the best part!”
As we look back on six years of Civil War Tails and gallop ahead into Year 7, we continue to be thankful for all the blessings that this museum has been to us and to our visitors. 2021 has been a “crazy busy” year for Civil War Tails, breaking all our records. We are thankful to God for blessing our work here, and we are thankful to all of you for telling your friends, co-workers, and social media followers about our museum. We are still amazed at the excitement and love you show us and our cat-soldiers.
This Thanksgiving season is particularly special. After being open for six years—which doesn’t sound like much—we are now meeting children whose love of history was inspired by their first visits to Civil War Tails. One student has come every year since he first saw “The Fate of Gettysburg” (Pickett’s Charge) through our front windows—before we had even opened! We invited him and his family in, and now, years later, he is heading into the Honors History Program in his school. We love hearing stories like his. Kids like him are why we do this. We love inspiring an interest in history in people of all ages, but seeing the next generation become interested is beyond rewarding for us.
We are so thankful to see how our humble dioramas and tiny modeling clay cats are touching children and adults, cat people and historians, alike. To you, they are more than clay—thank you for letting your imagination bring them to life to tell the stories and show you history.
This has been a wild and amazing ride so far, and we look forward to the years to come. Thank you, all, for supporting Civil War Tails, even in the midst of COVID-19, and for enabling us to bring people joy and to instill a love for dioramas and history in the next generation!
Next week, Gettysburg celebrates Remembrance Day, commemorating Pres. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. When you’re in town for the event, why not stop by the David Wills House, which will be open for select days and times.
David Wills was an attorney at the time of the battle. During the aftermath, as the townspeople discussed what to do with the thousands of soldiers killed and how to see them properly buried, Wills designed the cemetery that would become the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. His design was carefully planned. Arcs of graves extend from a center monument. The rings are divided into wedges, one for each Union state, giving equal weight to each state, whether big or small. That way, no one state could say their dead were closer to the monument in the center. All were equally important.
When Pres. Lincoln came into Gettysburg on the evening of November 18, 1863, he spent the night at the Wills house. The next day at the dedication of the Cemetery, his gave his speech that we now know as the Gettysburg Address. When you visit the Wills House today, you can see the room where he stayed, restored to its 1863 appearance.
The house will be open 11/18, 11/19, and 11/20 (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday), from 1:00-5:00 p.m. Please note: due to COVID guidelines, occupancy is limited, so you probably want to call ahead and see if they require reservations. Also, because it is a National Park Service building, masks are required.
It’s been a while since the Wills House was open (pre-COVID), so this coming weekend is a great chance for you to finally visit! While we’re on the topic of historic houses, don’t forget the Shriver House and the reopened Eisenhower Farm!
The Headless Horsecat is on the prowl, haunting Civil War Tails again! Well, maybe he’s just visiting old friends. Now, that pesky COVID, well, we’re never sure what it’s up to, but it’s always lurking somewhere!
“Back off, meow!”
Just hangin’ out on Devil’s Den for Halloween.
“Yikes, neigh! WAY too close for comfort!!!”
Can you find COVID?
Happy Halloween, everybody!!
One of the most rewarding aspects of running our museum is when we hear how a child has been inspired to make dioramas after seeing ours. But sometimes this inspiration can be scary—for the parent! Make a diorama? Where do we start? What do we use? I’m not craftsy! Don’t panic—keep calm and read today’s Mewsing!
Making your first diorama is really as simple as you want to make it. In my opinion, there are two rules to making dioramas:
- If you like it, it’s perfect. When it comes to your diorama, the only opinion that matters is yours.
- If you feel yourself going crazy, back off on the detail.
With these two rules in mind, let’s venture into some concrete tips for making your first diorama. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help to calm fears and inspire confidence by giving you ideas to start the creative juices going.
- Use a box for a base. Actually, a box isn’t necessary—our original version of “First Bull Run” had our cats and trees set up on a shelf. However, if you want a base, there’s nothing easier than a box. It’s sturdy, you can glue materials onto it, and you can poke holes in it for toothpick fence posts or if you need to wire something down. On our modified “First Bull Run,” we wired down the trees and cats.
- Use colored paper. Whether you have colored paper or use paint, marker, or colored pencil, paper is the easiest ground cover ever. Green paper for grass, brown paper for dirt, blue paper for water, and done!
- Use anything you have lying around. If you want to do a Civil War scene, it’s okay if you don’t have Union and Confederate soldiers, horses, and cannons. You can use any toys you have. Star Wars figures? Designate one as Gen. Lee or Col. Chamberlain. No horses? Use toy zebras or dogs or giraffes. A diorama tells a story, and it can still tell the story of, say, Chamberlain’s bayonet charge down Little Round Top, even if the colonel looks like Luke Skywalker and his troops are marshmallow Peeps. After all, our soldiers all have tails!
- Keep your eyes open. Look for things you can use on your diorama. Do you have a yard? Find twigs or sticks for trees or logs. Is there gravel on your driveway? Pick up some stones for rocks on your scene. We have even used dried snippets of mums for saplings on Devil’s Den and the Angle.
- Draw a backdrop instead of making a big scene. Many of our early dioramas had backdrops. The Confederate Camp had a night sky made of black construction paper with glitter for stars. The little scene of Gen. Robert E. Rodes getting shot has a simple backdrop of a galloping artillery team, hinting at what was happening around him without our needing to make a team of horses. Sometimes, we drew more complicated backdrops. “The Burning of Darien” involves several houses engulfed in flames. The backdrop of “Burnside’s Bridge” continues the bridge across the creek and shows the far bank.
- Use cardboard. Cardboard is a wonderful thing. Do you want a house or barn on your diorama? You don’t have to buy a plastic one. Just get a piece of cardboard (a cereal box is great) and draw the front of your house on it. Cut it out. Draw a side. Cut it out. Keep going until you have all four sides, then tape them together. A couple of rectangles for the sides of the roof, and you have a house! Later on, you can get more complicated, but don’t worry about that now. (Someday, we’ll Mews about how we made the Leister house for our diorama of Gen. Meade’s headquarters.) We also used cardboard to make the walls of the room where Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant, folding it to the right size and shape, and drawing the windows, curtains, and other features on it.
- Copy a picture. If you’re having trouble envisioning what you want to do, find a picture and then arrange your figures to match it. A couple of our old dioramas are based off of paintings by one of our favorite Civil War artists. When we were kids, we learned how to draw animals by copying pictures in books. It’s a good way to learn as you start out, and then as you improve, you will venture out on your own and let your imagination take over.
Making a diorama is not as hard as it sounds, so long as you do not try to do too much. Start small. In 1995, Rebecca made two clay cats as toys. We never imagined those cats would explode into a 26-year-long hobby and a museum of thousands of cat-soldiers teaching history!
Yesterday was the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, in Maryland, on September 17, 1862. In today’s Mewsing, we take a look at the story of the final Union push across Burnside’s Bridge, which inspired one of our older “retired” dioramas.
Around 10:00 a.m., Gen. Ambrose Burnside received orders to attack across Antietam Creek. In response, one division attempted to cross at a ford downstream while a brigade crossed the bridge. Unfortunately, the ford was unusable, so those troops had to search for another. At the bridge, the 11th Connecticut, acting as skirmishers, attempted to cross the bridge and creek. Heavy fire cut down a third of the regiment in less than a quarter of an hour. Meanwhile, the brigade itself got lost and never reached the bridge. Another attempt was ordered, but that brigade faltered under fire from sharpshooters before reaching the bridge.
By now, Gen. George McClellan was getting antsy. He ordered Burnside to “push forward… without a moment’s delay.” In response, the frustrated and offended Burnside ordered Col. Edward Ferrero’s brigade to make the next attempt.
Ferrero formed two of his regiments, the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania, into line. “It is General Burnside’s special request that the two 51sts take that bridge,” he told them. “Will you do it?”
At first no one said anything. Not only did the troops not particularly respect their brigade commander, but the Pennsylvanians were especially upset with Ferrero after he had denied them their daily shot of whiskey. Finally, Corporal Lewis Patterson called out, “Will you give us our whiskey, Colonel, if we take it?”
“Yes,” the colonel thundered in his “stentorian” voice, “You shall have as much as you want!”
Satisfied, the regiments advanced. The plan was to cross the bridge in two columns, four abreast, then the New Yorkers would turn to the left and the Pennsylvanians turn to the right, and they would form a battle line. But the Confederates poured a heavy fire on them as they advanced down the hill to the bridge. The columns broke up; the New Yorkers scurried to the left and hid behind a rail fence, and the Pennsylvanians scurried right and hid behind piles of rails and a stone wall. They fired across the creek at the Confederates from the slight protection of those positions.
The Pennsylvanians’ colonel, John Hartranft, yelled himself hoarse trying to urge his men on. Finally he rasped, “Come on boys, for I can’t halloo anymore.”
After about an hour, the Confederate fire slackened and Capt. William Allebaugh of the 51st Pennsylvania dashed onto the bridge, followed by the color-bearers, his first sergeant, and the color guard. The rest of the regiment swarmed after them, joined by the New Yorkers.
Across the creek, the Confederates were low on ammunition and aware that the Union division downstream had finally found a ford. Not wishing to be flanked, the Confederates withdrew.
A few days after the battle, Col. Ferrero was promoted to brigadier general. But he hadn’t held up his end of the bargain with the 51st Pennsylvania. So, as the regiments stood in their ranks at the promotion ceremony, Cpl. Patterson commented in a loud mutter, “How about that whiskey?” Ferrero got the hint, and the Pennsylvanians finally got their whiskey.
Reference: Bailey, Ronald H. The Civil War: The Bloodiest Day—The Battle of Antietam. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1984.
Today on our trip around Civil War Tails, we visit the newly-installed limber on “The Boys Are Still There” (Little Round Top). It’s surprising how much one new addition can refresh the diorama-under-construction and inspire us to do more!
Gun #3 is the only cannon of Lt. Hazlett’s battery to make it up the slope of Little Round Top under horse power instead of by hand. Wheel pair driver Pvt. Quinlan Sullivan is credited with the success.
Rebecca has had the horses and limber made for quite a while, but she finally got around to assembling them. Gluing thread to Sculpey horses as harness traces reminds us of accounts of artillery teams when under fire. While some horses stood quietly and ignored the exploding shells, others understandably panicked and ended up in tangled messes as horses turned completely around and traces ended up crossed and jumbled. Adding to the chaos, wounded horses would be thrashing as well, endangering the drivers as they worked to cut the harnesses off the dead and wounded and untangle the living, and all without being kicked by an iron-shod hoof.
Before installing the limber on the diorama, Rebecca had to measure out the location. A photo from the early 20th Century shows a memorial gun tube near a particular boulder along the path to the castle-like New York monument, indicating the placement of one of Hazlett’s guns. The cannon in the background of this photo is located at that rock. Artillery pieces were typically placed 14 yards apart, so Rebecca measured the distance for a 1:96 scale (3/4” tall cat) from that cannon and boulder. Then, it was just a matter of placing the limber and gun #3 (the latter is not installed yet) where the rocks would allow for wheels and horses.
Gluing down the limber took more time than we expected. To avoid mayhem as horses with wet glue fell and flopped left and right, and the limber bounced all over, Rebecca first glued the limber itself—held down by a ruler—and the wheel pair of horses. Once their glue was dry, she moved on to the swing pair, and then finally the lead pair. When all were securely fastened down, she glued the reins to the drivers’ paws, and the limber team was finished!
Looking for a fun, educational, easy way to enjoy the Gettysburg battlefield? Check out Civil War Tails Diorama Museum’s new “Battlefield Fun” Scavenger Hunt!
The hunt stems from one that Rebecca made the other day for a young visitor to the museum. We began talking about corps badges, which you can see on our Little Round Top diorama’s Union cats. But did you know they are on the monuments around the battlefield? Ever wonder why one monument has a star, another a crescent moon, another a diamond? Those are all corps badges, which were a source of great pride for each unit of the Union Army of the Potomac. See how many corps you can identify! You do not need to know about the battle to do it. But if you are a buff, you can still have fun with it! We also invite you to find each of the most common types of artillery on the battlefield. Think all cannons look alike? Think again!
Once you have completed the scavenger hunt, you will be able to go home and tell your friends or school teacher, “I learned the difference between a Napoleon smoothbore cannon and a Parrott rifled gun” or “Hey, that star makes me think of the XII Corps’ badge.” Maybe your friends won’t be impressed, but your teacher will be!
You can find a .pdf of the Civil War Tails “Battlefield Fun” Scavenger Hunt here. If you’re at home planning a trip to Gettysburg, go ahead and print out copies for the whole family. If you’re already in Gettysburg, stop by Civil War Tails and pick them up in person!