The Old Museum at Manassas
Jul 13, 2005
In 1886, Washington, D.C. gained a sensational new attraction when a cyclorama
depicting the August 30, 1862 Battle of Second Manassas opened to the public. This
massive painting, housed in a large circular building a short distance from the
Washington Monument, was the work of Frenchman Theophile Poilpot and a team of
13 other artists, some of whom had spent an entire summer making field sketches on
the actual battlefield. It was painted to give the illusion of depth and was extremely
realistic down to the last detail. |
The Manassas Panorama, as it was called, won laudatory reviews from the Washington press and from many Civil War veterans. In 1901, as the novelty of the cyclorama began to wear off in Washington and attendance declined, the Manassas Panorama was sold. The new owner, showman and entrepreneur Emmett W. McConnell, took the 20,000 square foot canvas (probably cut in sections) on the road. It was seen at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in 1907. Afterwards it may have been shown in Charleston, South Carolina, but evidence of other exhibitions has not surfaced. The Manassas Panorama essentially disappeared from view.
At the time he acquired the Manassas Panorama, Emmett W. McConnell of Ludlow, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Cincinatti) owned nearly 30 other cyclorama paintings and had become known as "The Panorama King". McConnell may have found it difficult to compete with the growing film industry, but it appears he continued in the business of showing his various cycloramas until 1933. At that time his address was Hollywood, California and only ten of the massive paintings remained in his possession according to Wilbur Kurtz of Atlanta, a noted authority on the subject. These ten surviving canvasses were put in storage at a Chicago warehouse.
National Park Service internal memorandums indicate attempts to track down Mr. McConnell and his remaining paintings in 1939 and again in 1947, but these efforts evidently proved unsuccessful. However, in 1964, artist Joseph W. King of Winston-Salem, North Carolina found Mr. McConnell still alive at the age of 96 in a New York nursing home. Through Mr. McConnell's son, Mr. King was able to purchase the original cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg by Paul Phillippoteaux which was among the ten stored in the Chicago warehouse since 1933. (Note: A later rendition is now on exhibit at Gettysburg National Military Park.) The identity of the other surviving paintings in the warehouse or their ultimate fate is not known. Evidence suggests the Manassas Panorama was not among them and may have been divested at an earlier date. In a letter to George H. Ayres, then owner of the battlefield's Stone House, Charles H. Ladd Johnston of Washington, D.C. wrote on February 7, 1929: "Through an antique dealer on 14th. Street N.W. named Heitmuller, I found out that the Cyclorama of the Battle of Manassas or Second Bull Run had been cut up and sold to various holders. It seems that a certain John W. Thompson held a mortgage on the property, and, as the interest had not been paid, he foreclosed and divided the canvas. A part (showing the attack on the railroad cut) was held by Heitmuller, who gave it to Stanford Macnider, Asst. Secty. of War who had it taken to the Soldiers Home." Further investigation by Johnston cast doubt on the last part of Heitmuller's story. No trace of the Manassas Panorama could be found at the Soldiers Home in Washington.
While it would appear the entire Manassas Panorama is no more, parts of it may still be out there gracing somebody's wall or collecting dust in some attic. Manassas National Battlefield Park has an interest in finding what is left of this historic treasure and welcomes any information that might resolve this mystery. These photos of the Panorama's various scenes may help identify the lost artwork.