Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hidden Gettysburg: Q&A with Coster Avenue mural co-creator

                     INTERACTIVE PANORAMA: At 3/4 of an acre, the Coster Avenue site 
                               is the smallest slice of the Gettysburg National Military Park.


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My favorite Gettysburg sites are mostly off-the-beaten path and visited largely by battlefield diehards:

1. The field behind the old George Rose farm, scene of bitter fighting on July 2, 1863, is almost a spiritual place. Days after the battle, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan took horrifying photographs of Confederate dead there, a fraction of the soldiers killed on Rose's farm.

2. You really need to know what to look for to find the site of the temporary grave of 140th Pennsylvania Captain David Acheson. Killed during fighting in The Wheatfield, his body was recovered by comrades and buried by a large boulder on John Weikert's farm. Acheson's initials ("D.A.") and regiment ("140 P.V.")  may still be found on the boulder on which another soldier carved them to mark the burial spot.

Mark H. Dunkelman, co-creator of the 
Coster Avenue mural,  has written six
books on the 154th New York.
3. Walk into the woods beyond the old Union breastworks on Culp's Hill, close your eyes and try to imagine what happened there more than 153 years ago. You don't have to imagine the massive boulders in those woods -- the Confederates used them as natural defenses from the fire of the Yankees on the crest.

Add to my exclusive list the former site of John Kuhn's Brickyard, scene of the futile stand by the brigade of Union Colonel Charles Coster on the first day of the battle. Modern Gettysburg long ago encroached on the small slice of battlefield land, now located in a neighborhood three blocks off busy Carlisle Street.

When Mark H. Dunkelman came upon the scene in the spring of 1970, he discovered a large wall under construction behind the 154th New York monument, one of three Union regiments honored with monuments on the grounds for their sacrifices on July 1, 1863. An artist with an avid interest in the 154th New York, Dunkelman asked the owners of the business building the wall if he could create a mural on it to depict the 1863 fighting there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dunkelman, the author of six books on the 154th New York and creator of an excellent site on the regiment, recently took time out to answer my questions about his mural, one of Gettysburg's hidden gems:

Why so passionate about this project?

Dunkelman: The mural combines two of three lifelong passions: making artwork and Civil War history (the third is playing music). My Civil War study centers on the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, so I’ve visited Coster Avenue, site of the regiment’s Gettysburg monument, many times since my childhood. During a visit in April 1970, I saw a concrete block wall under construction 10 feet behind the monument. At first it saddened me that the monument would have such an ugly backdrop. But then an idea came to me. By using my training as an artist (BFA, Rhode Island School of Design, 1969) to create a mural, I could make the wall disappear and bring back the scene that occurred in John Kuhn’s brickyard on that very site on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. I figured the mural would be a valuable device to interpret what happened on a section of the battlefield that has been drastically altered in the decades since the Civil War.

Close-up shows detail on the massive Coster Avenue mural.

The mural is quite an achievement. Do you ever go to Coster Avenue, look at it and wonder, "What the heck was I thinking"?

Dunkelman: My first of six books on the 154th New York, The Hardtack Regiment, was published in 1981, when the mural project was still in its research and development stages. My author’s bio on the dust jacket included this line: “Mr. Dunkelman is planning a mural in Gettysburg adjacent to Coster Avenue, site of the 154th New York’s monument, depicting the fighting that occurred there.” I’ve occasionally referred to that sentence in cautioning people with grandiose plans to keep them under their hat -- otherwise they will feel obligated to follow through with them!

How many hours would you estimate you and your artistic partner, Johan Bjurman, put into creating the massive mural?

Dunkelman: I put in uncounted hours over a period of years developing a one inch to one foot scale pencil sketch and a larger oil sketch that satisfied me and the experts who kindly critiqued my work: my late partner Mike Winey of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Kathy Georg Harrison at the Gettysburg National Military Park, photographic historian extraordinaire Bill Frassanito, and the late Col. J. Met Sheads, who lived on North Stratton Street and knew the neighborhood as well as the battle.

Johan and I painted the original 80-feet-long mural in five weeks in 1988, which still amazes me considering most of it was painted with one-inch brushes because of all the detail. We did the 2001 restoration, which included scraping off the old varnish and repainting every square inch, in two weeks. Production of the current glass version took quite a while. Johan put in about 100 hours, if I remember correctly, painting over an enlarged print of the mural to create the image that was photographed to create the files that were used to print the glass panels.

Incidentally, Johan and I have been together in Gettysburg three times to work on the mural, in 1988 to install the original, in 2001 to restore it, and in 2015 to take it down for replacement by the glass version. During the first visit, I tripped and banged up my knee and wound up in Gettysburg Hospital. During our last visit, Johan tripped in almost the exact same spot and wound up in Gettysburg Hospital with three broken ribs. So we’ve both been Gettysburg casualties on Coster Avenue. (For much more on the restoration of the mural, see Dunkelman's post on the Emerging Civil War blog here.)

A  photo of the Coster Avenue site in  1970,  the year Dunkelman conceived of the idea to put 
a mural here. The 154th New York monument is at left.  (Photo: Mark H. Dunkelman)
Your mural is smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood. When you first saw the area, what was your reaction?

Dunkelman: I’ve always seen Coster Avenue -- which at three-quarters of an acre is the smallest portion of the Gettysburg National Military Park -- as an isolated little grassy island tucked away and hidden in the town, distant from the rest of the battlefield, most of which is contiguous. In all the visits I made to Coster Avenue before the mural was installed, I never saw another person there. Since the mural went up, every time I’ve returned to Gettysburg I’ve encountered visitors at Coster Avenue. Civil War historian Ed Bearss told me that he never took tours to Coster Avenue until the mural went up; since then he makes it a regular stop. It’s been extremely gratifying, since my goal was to draw attention to what had been an overlooked part of the battle.

When I visit Fredericksburg, I often am tempted to visit with those who live in the neighborhood of the Sunken Road to ask them what it's like to live where so much carnage took place. Ever tempted to do the same near the site of your mural?


Dunkelman: I’ve met a number of people who live in the neighborhood surrounding the mural. Sometimes we discuss the battle, but most often the talk is about the mural and its effect in drawing visitors. I’ve been pleased to find that the neighbors like the mural and are protective of it; they keep an eye on it. And my relationship with Coldsmith Roofing, the firm that owns the building, has been great ever since they gave me permission back in the 1970s to attach the mural to their back wall. I became friends with a couple who lived around the corner on North Stratton Street, and for years they put me up during visits to Gettysburg (thanks, Paul and Carolyn!). And after they moved, their neighbor has let me stay in an apartment in her house (thanks, Sue!), which is great. Another neighbor has dug brickbats out of his garden -- quite likely remnants of Kuhn’s brickyard -- and he gave me a good-sized one, which is a nice souvenir. I consider the area around Coster Avenue my neighborhood in Gettysburg.

          The mural and site of fighting on July 1, 1863, is in a Gettysburg neighborhood.

The mural is off the beaten path for the typical Gettysburg visitor. For those who have never visited this part of the battlefield, what are three things they should know?

Dunkelman: First, that the clash between Coster’s Union brigade and Avery’s and Hays’s Confederate brigades was an important element of the First Day’s battle. The brickyard fight’s significance stems from the fact that it was among the last organized Union resistance on July 1, and Coster’s stand allowed the XI Corps divisions that had been driven from the plains north of the town to make their escape through the borough without major additional losses. Ewell’s failure to attack Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1 is one of the major controversies of the battle. The brickyard fight has to be considered as a factor in that decision. Second, the brickyard fight was long overlooked by historians and students of the battle. For example, Edwin Coddington devoted only two sentences to it in his classic 1968 book, The Gettysburg Campaign. In contrast, the late Harry Pfanz included an entire chapter on the brickyard fight in his 2001 book, Gettysburg – The First Day. Third, but not least, about 770 New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, North Carolinians, and Louisianans became casualties in the brickyard fight, and they deserve to be remembered.

An image of 154th New York Sergeant
Amos Humiston's children was
 found near his body at Gettysburg.
What's your favorite individual soldier story of the fighting that took place in the vicinity of Kuhn's brickyard?

Dunkelman: That would be the story I told in detail in my second book, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston (Praeger, 1999). I rate the tale of Sergeant Humiston and his famous “Children of the Battle Field” as one of the best known human-interest stories to emerge from the battle, right up there with those of John Burns and Jennie Wade. My connection with Humiston descendants, who provided me with a plethora of material, including Amos’s wartime letters, enabled me to write what has been described as the definitive account. That was gratifying -- as was the invitation to deliver the main address at the 1993 dedication of the monument to Amos a few blocks south of Coster Avenue. (Read more on Humiston here.)

Finally, besides Coster Avenue, what are your three favorite sites at Gettysburg?

Dunkelman: The Amos Humiston monument on the grounds of the Gettysburg Volunteer Fire Department at 35 North Stratton Street; East Cemetery Hill, including the monuments to regiments of Coster’s brigade on the GNMP side of Baltimore Street and the two former Homestead orphanage buildings on the other side of the street at numbers 777 and 785 (the founding of the orphanage was inspired by the Humiston story); and the 10 graves of 154th New York soldiers in the National Cemetery.

        INTERACTIVE PANORAMA: Colonel Coster's brigade made a futile stand here.


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