06 Jun Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Bird Brother’s Story
by Thomas Nank
In the years following the Civil War, Americans found ways to remember the service of the veterans of the fighting. Songs, monuments and reunions brought their experiences to the public. One of the most popular venues for commemorating the battles of the war were cycloramas: massive, life-size paintings “in the round” that placed the viewer in the center of the battle scene. Many cycloramas were so life-like that veterans wept openly when viewing them years later.
In 1879, the French cyclorama artist Paul Philippoteaux was contracted to create a cyclorama depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. Philippoteaux was not a soldier, nor was he at Gettysburg during the battle, so he needed to do research before beginning his work. He visited Gettysburg in 1882 and drew sketches of the battlefield along Cemetery Ridge at the climax of Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, the subject of his painting. Philippoteaux hired a photographer to take photos of the scene and interviewed participants of the battle to guarantee the accuracy of his work.
While in Gettysburg, Philippoteaux met brothers Peter and Robert Bird, who were both veterans of the battle from the 24th Michigan Infantry regiment. The brothers had traveled back to the battlefield 17 years after the war and were walking the battlefield, paying their respects to their departed comrades and reminiscing.
Peter and Robert told Philippoteaux about the 24th Michigan’s fight west of Seminary Ridge on July 1st. During the fighting there, the 24th lost more men than any other Union regiment during the battle. Philippoteaux was so touched by their experience that he honored them by including their likenesses in his work – even though they had fought elsewhere on the battlefield. Both brothers had suffered wounds on July 1st: Peter was hit on the right thigh, and Robert on the arm. The brothers were 21 and 18 years old when they fought at Gettysburg, yet Philippoteaux painted them as they appeared when he met them nearly 20 years after the battle, with gray hair and aging features. Both were recreated in the painting with their injuries wrapped in bandages as they would have appeared during the battle. They are depicted walking away from the intense fighting behind them, a symbolic reference to their status as veterans who had survived their country’s greatest battle.
Peter Bird was born January 21, 1841. He lived in Romulus, Michigan near Detroit at the time of his enlistment at age 21, and was a farmer by trade. He was mustered into Company D of the 24th Michigan Infantry on August 12, 1862 for three years of service. According to family history, Peter lay on the field for days before his brother Robert found him and took him from the field. He soon returned to Michigan and spent some time recovering at Harper Hospital in Detroit. His leg never healed properly and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Peter served in the hospital as a clerk before returning to his regiment.
After the war, Peter was mustered out of the 24th Michigan in Detroit on June 30, 1865. He later attended business college and became the first keeper of the Eagle Harbor Light on the Keweenaw Peninsula. In 1877, he returned to Romulus and purchased a 160-acre farm, served as the township’s Supervisor, and was employed at the Northwestern Life Insurance Company. He built a brick home in 1878 that still stands today. He founded two banks in Romulus and New Boston and returned to Gettysburg at least once with his brother Robert. Peter Bird died in 1912 at the age of 71 from the effects of his wound and he is buried in Romulus Cemetery.
Robert Bird was born March 21, 1844, three years after Peter. He also lived in Romulus at his enlistment and, like his brother, was a farmer by trade. He enlisted in Company D of the 24th Michigan Infantry on August 1, 1862 for three years of service, eleven days before his brother. He was wounded at Gettysburg and again in the leg at the Battle of the Wilderness in May, 1864. Robert was promoted to Corporal on December 1, 1864. He mustered out of the regiment at Detroit on June 30, 1865, the same day as his brother. He lived in Romulus after the war where he and his wife had five children. Robert Bird died on July 3, 1923, exactly 60 years after the event depicted in Philippoteaux’s cyclorama. He is buried in Romulus Cemetery near his brother.
Here is an audio link to a fascinating interview with Sue Boardman about the Gettysburg Cyclorama:
Ask-A-Guide Interview with Sue Boardman
Adapted from “The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama: A History and Guide” by Sue Boardman and Kathryn Porch
Military biographies from All Michigan Civil War at http://allmichigancivilwar.com/Regiments/24MIInfantry/24InfCoDRoster.html
Cyclorama images from the National Park Service