In an age when a sample of educated Americans do not know who won the Civil War, it is unlikely that anyone in the United States today remembers the Battle of Sedan.
In 1885, by contrast, there were very few people in Germanic Cincinnati who did not know about the Battle of Sedan, the turning point of the Franco-Prussian War. In one afternoon, 1 September 1870, at this little town in northern France, the Second French Empire fell, the Prussian Empire was born, and Europe moved one step closer to World War I. Germans around the world celebrated the anniversary of this victory each year.
German artist Louis Braun, assisted by artists August Lohr and Franz Biberstein, unveiled in 1881 an immense panoramic painting of the battle, more than 400 feet in length and 50 feet high. Braun was present at the battle and conferred with German military authorities while painting his masterpiece. A company was formed to display the painting in the round at Frankfurt. The massive painting was then displayed in New Orleans through 1884.
On display, Braun’s masterpiece was stretched along the walls of a specially designed octagonal building, so that the viewer was totally immersed in the scene. The foreground was built up with dirt and rocks so the painting appeared to emerge beyond an actual landscape. The illusion was enhanced by brilliant electrical arc lighting. The whole effect was something like a Victorian IMAX.
In the spring of 1885, advance agents of the International Panorama Company of Chicago began scouring Cincinnati for a location to bring Braun’s extravaganza to the Queen City. As Ann Senefeld, through her excellent blog, Digging Cincinnati History, has shown, the company identified two suitable locations, bought one and leased the other so that a competing panorama would be unable to locate to Cincinnati. By mid-summer, work was underway on one of the oddest buildings ever to grace the city. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [19 July 1885]:
“The peculiar and not unattractive building now being erected at the corner of Seventh and Elm streets is shortly to become the home of that great art work the ‘Battle of Sedan.’ As a realistic picture it has probably never had its equal, and will, without question, be one of the features of our city.”
The exhibition opened on 29 August 1885, to rave reviews. The Enquirer sent a reporter out to the monumental edifice, who brought back a breathless account of his visit:
“It is impossible to stand long without becoming convinced that you are viewing a bloody battle from a lofty eminence. The billows of the battlefield boom and break all around—no noise—yet you feel it—and even fancy you smell gunpowder. Directly before you on the built up foreground, which matches the picture in a way that deceives all, and in reach, or fancied reach, of your arms, lies a drum with its head split open by a sword thrust, as if some battle-wild soldier had demolished it to silence its rallying beat. The soil is strewn with battered helmets and broken sabers, and plowed with horse tracks and strewn with blood.”
The Cincinnati Gazette [12 September 1885] was equally rapturous and saw the opening of the panorama (sometimes referred to as a “cyclorama”) as a significant development in economic development and regional tourism:
“The great panorama is worthy to be widely known as one of the attractions of the city. If its merit was understood throughout the cities of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, and in all the metropolitan and railway districts, excursion trains to see it would be in demand.”
Within a week or so, the panorama was attracting “hundreds and hundreds” of visitors. The Gazette was prescient in that some visitors came from some distance. The Enquirer [16 December 1885] reported on a couple from Indiana who were entranced by the display:
“Yesterday a gentleman from Indiana visited the cyclorama of the Battle of Sedan in company with his wife. It took them just two hours to see the many points of interest, and the lady, anxious to do some shopping yet, remarked: ‘Come on, John, let us go.’ ‘No, Mary, just wait a little yet, I want to see that smoke blow away so we can see the ruins of the buildings.’ ‘Why, you fool, that smoke is painted, it ain’t natural; don’t you see it doesn’t move!'”
By January of 1887, reports (no doubt based on press handouts from the International Panorama Company) estimated that “several hundred thousands” of visitors had viewed the Battle of Sedan. The exhibit was extended until May of that year, and then it was taken down, packed up and shipped to Toronto for exhibition in that city.
The Panorama building at Seventh and Elm streets was redecorated and reopened that summer with a new cyclorama painting of the Battle of Gettysburg by French artists Henri and Paul Philippoteaux (father and son). That exhibition opened in October 1887 and was on display during a large Grand Army of the Republic encampment—a reunion of Civil War Union veterans—that same month. Despite their endorsement, Gettysburg (which had already been on display in a number of American cities) didn’t draw the crowds that the Battle of Sedan did. The Gettysburg panorama closed at the end of 1888 and the great iron Panorama building was demolished by March 1889, less than four years after its construction.
The vast Louis Braun mural of the Battle of Sedan has been lost, as has the Philippoteaux’s rousing rendition of the Battle of Gettysburg.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities