1899 Spectacle: “The Battle of Manassas!”–a Living Panorama Leaves Visitors Unimpressed

From John Hennessy:

I came across this curiosity tonight in the May 6, 1899 issue of the Charleston Evening Post–something I had never heard of before.

A news piece that same day notes, “The advance forces of the Pain Fire-works Company have been at work this week arranging the grounds for the grand reproduction of the “Battle of Manassas,” or the first Bull Run fight. Everything is in perfect order, and on next Wednesday evening the gates will be opened to receive the vast crowds which will undoubtedly be attracted to witness this magnificent production.

The scene representing the battle-field is one of the most perfect paintings that Mr. Pain has ever presented. The battle will be given in very detail, and Gen. Johnston’s famous charge illustrated by an army of well trained men. The costumes, arms and equipments are fac-similes of those used at the battle….”

The pyrotechnical display which closes each exhibition has been especially arranged for the occasion, and the features will be emblematic of the U.C.V. [United Confederate Veterans].  Massive portraits in lines of fire will be presented of the leaders and the Confederacy, and the Bonnie Blue Flag will float proudly over the base ball park during Reunion week.

Another article from the May 3 issue noted that the “massive scenery to be used in the presentation has arrived and the artists and carpenters will begin the erection of the same tomorrow. The scene represents the old battlefield and surroundings and has been painted from sketches made by engineers at the time of the battle….Every detail of the battle will be pictured and over five hundred men will take part….The scenery is entirely new, having been painted especially for this presentation.”

Opening night, May 10, 1899, saw 5,000 people pour into the ball park to watch the spectacle. The newspaper tried to put the happiest spin on things. The public went away, said the newspaper, “perfectly satisfied with what they saw” (perhaps not the lavish praise the organizers sought).  “The fight was as realistic as could be made, and the effect was altogether good….The heavens were brilliantly illuminated with rockets, exploding troubles, and set pieces.”

But beneath the tepid praise were ominous rumblings. The next day’s paper carried word that after a second performance “The Battle of Manassas will not be given again at the base ball park.”  The news note continued, “The public have been greatly disappointed with the spectacle since the first night it was given….There will not be a display tonight.”

What exactly this thing was is not really clear.  Do any of you out there know?  A living panorama?  A moving map?  Just an excuse for some fireworks?

In any event, it’s an interesting effort to capitalize on the American tradition of war watching begotten by Manassas.




Mrs. Henry hailed a Southern martyr? Apparently not

From John Hennessy:

It’s one of the standard tales of First Manassas:  that the widow Judith Carter Henry’s death during the fighting on her farm on July 21, 1861, helped outrage the South, embitter the war. The presumption has always been that in the post-battle hunt for atrocities both sides undertook (avidly), the death of Mrs. Henry at the hands of Ricketts’s guns that afternoon ranks near the top.

Union artilleryman Captain James Ricketts later admitted that he “thoroughly riddled” Mrs. Henry’s house. This is how it appeared soon after the battle.

I can find no evidence of that. Mrs. Henry’s name rarely appears in newspapers North or South in the weeks and months following the battle. Rather, her death seems simply to have been accepted as an inevitable outcome of battle (no one then could know how uncommon civilian deaths in battle would really be during the Civil War). So far as I can see, no one trotted out her sad fate as evidence of Yankee perfidy, even though the press worked feverishly to document supposed Union barbarities.

The status of Mrs. Henry as lamented public martyr seems to me to be another one of those misplaced presumptions that morph into myth.

The ruins of the Henry House, after being dismantled by the Confederates for souvenirs and building material the winter following the battle.