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The Army Of The Cumberland: A Panorama Show By William B. T. Travis

July 2024
3min read

Concerned lest history
overlook their triumphs, veterans of the Army of the Cumberland had them writ large -- on a canvas five hundred feet long.
of the Cumberland had them writ large—on a canvas
five hundred feet long

The Army of the Cumberland was one of the principal Union armies in the Civil War, and it was about as good an army as this country ever had. Its soldiers thought very well of themselves, which is one way of saying that it was a high-morale outfit, and they also thought very well of their generals, especially of the one who led them through a couple of the worst battles any army ever had: Major General William S. Rosecrans, a red-faced, excitable, hard-fighting man who was known to his troops as “Old Rosy.” Rosecrans was a good man but unlucky. He lost a big battle, got into the bad graces of General U. S. Grant, and was removed from his command. As an indirect result, he and the army wound up with an unusual memorial in the form of a huge strip of painted canvas 500 feet long, eight feet high, and now more than a century old, some scenes from which are shown here.

First, a word about the Army of the Cumberland itself. It cut its eyeteeth in the fearful Battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, fought the hard and indecisive Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, that fall, and at the end of the year engaged in a terrible battle at Stones River, Tennessee. Then, in September, 1863, the army got into an even worse battle at Chickamauga, suffering a severe defeat and retiring to Chattanooga to stand a siege. It was at this time that General Grant removed Rosecrans and replaced him with George H. Thomas.

Two months later the army atoned for its defeat by breaking the siege and, with the help of General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, driving its Confederate opponents off Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and forcing them to retreat to Dalton, Georgia. Sherman’s victorious campaign to Atlanta followed in the spring and summer of 1864, and that fall the Army of the Cumberland returned to Tennessee, beat a Confederate army at the battles of Franklin and Nashville, and insured permanent Federal control of the war in the West.

But the defeat at Chickamauga and the removal of Rosecrans had remained a sore spot with the army’s veterans, and after the war they commissioned an artist to record their achievements on canvas.

The artist was William D. T. Travis, who had accompanied the army as a staff artist for Harper’s Weekly and the New York Illustrated News. Working from his own on-the-spot sketches and his memories, Travis painted a huge panorama—thirty-two scenes on a long roll of canvas, which was arranged on two huge spindles for lecture-hall display.

When this ponderous work was finished, Travis and his younger brother James went on tour with it and displayed it all across the Middle West, the region from which most of the Cumberlands came. For a number of years the panorama was a great success. Then, when everybody who wanted to see it had seen it and had rejoiced in the recognition that had been given to the army, the bulky roll was retired to an attic in the big farmhouse that Travis used as home and studio in Burlington, New Jersey. There it reposed for decades.

A subsequent owner of house and painting is a nephew of the artist. Mr. C. C. Travis, a businessman of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mr. Travis felt that the present generation would enjoy seeing this “Portraiture of the Cumberland Army,” and several years ago he got in touch with the editors of AMERICAN HERITAGE. Two of them went to Burlington and spent an afternoon in the dusty, almost airless attic, unwinding the cumbersome roll from its spindles and growing more and more enthusiastic, despite the heat and the dust, as they looked at the separate frames. Reproductions of some of these were made and used in the AMERICAN HERITAGE Picture History of the Civil War; now an assortment is presented in this magazine.

In the unfurling panorama, Travis set out to tell the story of the army he had lived with so long. He worked in battle scenes (at which, of course, he had been present), details of camp life, and incidents of the march and of foraging expeditions. In the end he produced a record that is both historically valuable and artistically charming.

To Mr. C. C. Travis our thanks are due for bringing the panorama to our attention. The huge canvas, by the way, no longer rests in dusty obscurity in the Burlington attic; it is now in the Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution.

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