When Mathew Brady exhibited his photographic images of the dead of the Battle of Antietam in New York in 1862, throngs went to see the exhibition. The shocking sight of the dead of the conflict caused the New York Times to remark that if Brady ‘has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.’ Brady’s exposition is by the far the most famous of the Civil War, but it was only one example of an entire industry that revolved around people’s fascination with the fighting. That industry was based on two simple premises– that those at home wanted to get a sense of what the war was really like, and that they were willing to pay for it. Although the photographs of the Civil War are the most enduring legacy of this enterprise, these early ‘immersive experiences’ came in a number of forms. This post relates research I have been carrying out into a remarkable traveling American Civil War experience that sought to bring an interpretation of the fighting to audiences of the Home Front. It is of interest to this site because its creators recognised that they could procure a global audience. In 1863, they crossed the Atlantic to tap into huge interest in the war in Ireland– thousands of people in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, flocked to be a part of it. (1)

Confederate dead in the Bloody Lane at Antietam (the position the Irish Brigade attacked). Exposed by Alexander Gardner, it was images such as this exhibited by Mathew Brady that caused such a sensation in 1862 New York (Library of Congress)

Confederate dead in the Bloody Lane at Antietam (the position the Irish Brigade attacked). Exposed by Alexander Gardner, it was images such as this exhibited by Mathew Brady that caused such a sensation in 1862 New York (Library of Congress)

In the summer of 1863, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great steam ship the SS Great Eastern arrived in Ireland. Among the cargo unloaded from her hold were the components of a most unusual attraction, which would soon be wowing audiences up and down the island. The exhibition, which arrived ‘in charge of a couple of Yankees,’ boasted that prerequisite for a must-see show, an ‘unpronounceable name.’ It was also figured to be ‘of special and intense interest to Ireland’ due to its subject matter. The brainchild of Clapp, Stanley & Co. of New York, the exquisitely titled ‘Polopticomorama’ had an ambitious aim– to bring the sights and sounds of the ongoing American Civil War to an Irish audience. (2)

The foundations upon which Clapp, Stanley & Co.’s production drew were the moving panorama and the diorama. Intended to be immersive experiences, these forms of entertainment were hugely popular with 19th century audiences. The moving panoramas were giant painted scenes, designed to take viewers on virtual tours of famous locations, such as the Mississippi River. As the panorama moved forward, a narrator would describe the unfolding scene to the crowd. To get an idea of how these panoramas worked you can view a portion of the c. 1850 Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley (incidentally painted by Irish artist John J. Egan) on a video from The Metropolitan Museum of Art by clicking here. However, the central component of the Polopticomorama that visited Ireland in 1863 was the diorama. Invented in the 1820s by Louis Daugerre (himself a panorama painter and later inventor of the daguerreotype photography process), the diorama’s principal element were large pictures painted on both sides of a translucent material, onto which light was manipulated to create an illusion of three-dimensions, moving images and changing atmospheric conditions. These dioramas were displayed in specially constructed areas (one short-lived example was to be found on Great Brunswick Street, now Pearse Street, Dublin between 1826 and 1828) though by the 1860s they appear to have been more adaptable. But what seems to have been particularly special about Clapp and Stanley’s American Civil War Polopticomrama was the addition of layered elements, including the use of chemicals, to enhance this immersive experience. It certainly made a lasting impression on the show’s Irish audiences. (3)

The SS Great Eastern, which brough the Polopticomorama to Ireland (Memorial University Libraries)

The SS Great Eastern, which brought the Polopticomorama to Ireland (Memorial University Libraries)

The Polopticomorama seems to have started life in New York in 1863. The principal artist was Minard Lewis, who was originally from Maryland. Lewis had a long history of panorama painting, having worked with Massachusetts painter Truman C. Bartholomew during the 1850s on Revolutionary-War panoramas such as the Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charleston. He had joined the California gold rush in 1849, and the sketches he produced would also later form part of a panorama based on that experience. Minard’s pre-war work also made it to Europe, where it appeared in the Cyclorama von Nordamerika which was displayed in Vienna. By 1860 he was living in New York, which is where he presumably struck up his association with Clapp, Stanley & Co. The Polopticomorama, which depending on reports cost between £20,000 sterling and $70,000 dollars to produce, was being displayed from at least early 1863 in locations such as New York, Pittsburgh, Trenton and Baltimore. Just prior to its unveiling in Ireland, the Dublin Freeman’s Journal shared an American account of the show to whet its readers appetite:

…language fails to describe the sensation produced upon the mind as one gazes upon these terrible battle scenes, where death and destruction fall on every hand, and remembers that it is our own friends and relations who are thus engaged in this deadly strife. And so life-like are the paintings, that one instinctively turns the ear to catch the sound of some familiar voice, and the eye hurriedly scans the features of the passing throng in the hope to recognise some well-known face. The illusion is made so perfect by the aid of mechanical effect, that nothing is left to imagination. The flash of powder and roar of the artillery are distinctly seen and heard as though the audience were on the actual field of battle. (4)

Plan of the Diorama Building, London, 1823 (Almanach des Spectacles, 1823)

Plan of the Diorama Building, London, 1823 (Almanach des Spectacles, 1823)

The Polopticomorama aimed to show viewers the ‘horrors of the battlefield’ in ‘life-like vividness.’ They were to hear the thunder of the cannon, and see the fire and smoke of the opposing forces. In order to do this the showmen made use of ‘extensive and intricate machinery, mechanical appliances, chemical effects and ingenious dioramic accompaniments’ so that the audience could ‘almost imagine themselves actual spectators of the sublime and stirring scenes represented.’  As with the panoramas, a key feature of the Polopticomorama was a narrative lecture describing the key events. The Polopticomorama appears to have spent a brief period in England before arriving in Dublin in July 1863. American Civil War themed entertainment had the potential to be big business in Ireland. Although perhaps not something that is commonly recognised today, Ireland had an almost insatiable appetite for information on the war. As one newspaper reported, the Polopticomorama promised to be a success because ‘all Irishmen and Irishwomen are interested in this great contest, for even if they have not friends or relatives upon American soil, they must at least feel interested in the great cause of humanity involved in the issues of this tremendous contest.’ (5)

The first Irish venue for the Polopticomorama was the Concert Room of Dublin’s Rotundo. After the opening performance the Freeman’s Journal told Dubliners what they could expect:

The exhibition opens with a view of Washington, Georgetown, and Longbridge, the perfect authenticity of which, as well as all the other scenes represented, is vouched for by the proprietors of the work, which is on the most extensive scale of any similar exhibition ever produced here. The bombardment of Fort Sumter is a very vivid scene of scenic portraiture, and, indeed, the views throughout are depicted with considerable artistic skill, independently of their truthfulness as memorials of the great events which have such a deep and abiding interest for the civilzed world. The other pictures which attract particular attention are the battle of Bull’s Run, burning vessels in Gosport Navy Yard, riots in the city of Baltimore, bombardment of Port Royal, and the representation of the Battle of Antietam. The grand war tableau, with which the second section of the exhibition closes, is also highly interesting, from the fact of its containing a series of “life portraits” of the leading generals of the northern armies. The third section comprises a grand moving diorama of the battle in Hampton Roads, in which the celebrated Merrimac bears a conspicuous part. The different scenes are explained in an intelligent descriptive lecture. (6)

Advertisement for the Polopticomorama in the Daily Ohio Statesman, 11th July 1864 (Daily Ohio Statesman)

Advertisement for the Polopticomorama in the Daily Ohio Statesman, 11th July 1864 (Daily Ohio Statesman)

The Polopticomorama had a matinée and an evening performance, with advertisements helpfully telling perspective visitors what time they should order their carriages to take them home (the duration was in the region of two hours). Tickets for the show could be bought at establishments such as Bussell’s, Moses’s and Pigot’s. What is particularly striking about performances such as this is the ingenuity employed to attract as many customers as possible, and also to encourage repeat visits. Children were a particular target market. A special offer advertisement told how children would be entertained for as little as 3d, while the educational value of the experience was also highlighted. One report related that children who visited the Polopticomorama in Dublin were ‘made to understand their lessons more readily’ through the use of illustrated books. Indeed, aside altogether from the entertainment value, the writer felt that ‘more information about the American War can be obtained in a few hours at Messrs. Clapp and Stanley’s exhibition at the Rotundo than could be acquired from books in as many months.’ Such was the excitement surrounding the Polopticomorama that the Lord Lieutenant himself had a private viewing with his ADC and Assistant Private Secretary at the Rotundo on 15th August. Never ones to miss a promotional trick, from then on the show was advertised in the papers as ‘under the immediate patronage of His Excellency the Lord Lieutenant.’ The company was determined to keep the show fresh, and as such new scenes were consistently being painted to keep pace with events at the front. After a month on show at the Rotundo it was announced that the management were now in a position to present a new diorama, which had just arrived aboard the ship Persia, and which made the exhibition one-third larger. Indeed the speed with which they could follow with the major events of the war was remarkable– when touring Wisconsin in April 1864 the proprietors boasted that all the major incidents were included, ‘down to Kilpatrick’s Raid,’ a Union cavalry operation against Richmond that had occurred only a matter of weeks previously. (7)

George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who visited the Polopticomorama in 1863 (National Portrait Gallery)

George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who visited the Polopticomorama in 1863 (National Portrait Gallery)

After a tremendously successful run in Dublin, the Polopticomorama readied itself for a move to Cork. In order to drum up some enthusiasm before opening night, coloured engravings of the war were ‘profusely scattered throughout the city.’ The first Cork performance was on the 24th August, with the venue the Theatre Royal on Georges Street (now Oliver Plunkett Street). Doors opened at 1.30 and 7.30, with admission prices ranging from 2s 6d, to 1s 6d, to 6d. As in Dublin, it was a huge success. The theatre was ‘crowded nightly’ with the audiences ‘perfectly carried away with enthusiasm.’ It was recommended that you go early if you entertained hopes of getting a seat. The journalists in Cork were just as impressed as their counterparts in the capital. A writer with the Cork Examiner related that ‘the main feature…is the introduction of flashes of light and puffs of smoke to represent the firing of cannon and the explosion of shells. This effect is introduced into several views of sieges and sea fights, in the Merrimac scene it shows the destruction of two Federal frigates, the contending vessels are made to move over the water while keeping up a vigorous fire at each other, and an almost perfect illusion is produced. The portrayal of the Hampton Roads fight was clearly impressive. One Cork writer remarked they had ‘seldom seen anything to equal this in its way for ingenuity and effectiveness. Ships move about, discharge guns, pour forth volumes of flame and smoke, and advance and retreat and manoeuvre, as if they were real vessels engaged in a real conflict.’ The Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier commented on the ‘masterly performance of some popular airs on the piano’ which added to the drama, concluding that the Polopticomorama was ‘a very unusual treat, well worth seeing, and none should be without seeing it.’ As in Dublin, promoters were keen to accentuate the educational value of the show. Nearly 2,000 children attended a special matinée juvinale performance on 1st September. Different techniques were used to keep people interested in attending; a military band was added to the show for the second last night of the Cork run, while prizes were often also given away to the crowd. Descriptions of some of these ‘valuable presents’ have left us the names of some of those who went to see the Polopticomorama. Mrs. Smith of Matthew Tower on the Lower Road won a ‘beautiful rosewood dressing case’, while Mrs. Bradbier of No.2, French’s Quay, came away with 112 lbs of flour. Catherine Leary of Blackrock got a reversible inlaid miniature pin, a Mr. Edge procured a ‘valuable locket’ and Mr. Burgess of the Citizen Steamers’ Company pocketed an emerald and opal brooch. (8)

The Rotundo in Dublin, which later formed part of the Ambassador (William Murphy)

The Rotundo in Dublin, which later formed part of the Ambassador (William Murphy)

The next venue on the Polopticomorama’s circuit was Limerick’s Theatre Royal, where it opened on the 7th September 1863. The plaudits kept coming– the Tipperary Vindicator called the show ‘the most splendid work of panoramic art that it has ever been our good fortune to witness.’ It is not clear when the performance left Ireland, but it looks to have stopped off in England once more before re-crossing the Atlantic. 1864 seems to find it touring locations such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. The Polopticomorama was clearly not unique during the Civil War; a review of contemporary newspapers uncovers many other similar shows, such as Josiah Perham’s ‘Mirror of the Rebellion’ which was to be found in Massachusetts in 1863 (this may also have been the original title of the Clapp & Stanley show) and the ‘Polopticomorama’ of Randolph, Carey & Co. which was touring Illinois in 1864 (it is unclear if this was an associated show, or was simply cashing in on the Clapp, Stanley & Co. success). (9)

Theatre Royal Cork in 1867 (Illustrated London News)

Theatre Royal Cork in 1867 (Illustrated London News)

There is some evidence to suggest that not everybody in Ireland agreed with the particularly Federal slant with which the show presented the war. Despite being overwhelmingly positive in the main, the Freeman’s Journal did add that ‘some of the pictures are, perhaps, a little too highly coloured and taken from a Federal point of view.’  The most interesting postscript in this regard though is surely the legal action taken by one Mr. Harold Preston. Preston had filled in as the show’s narrator for a week during the Dublin run in the Rotundo, as the usual lecturer, Mr. Gardiner, had fallen ill. However, Gardiner subsequently refused to pay his substitute, stating that ‘Mr. Preston was incompetent to lecture on the scenes in the Polopticomorama, and often represented as Confederate victories battles which were won by the Federals.’ Whether Preston did this as a result of his own political leanings or through ignorance of the facts is unclear, but in any event the court found in his favour, and ordered he be paid the £2 10s owed to him.(10)

Despite the presence of similar shows in America, there was surely nothing to match the Polopticomorama in Ireland during the war years. Even if some had reservations about its Union-oriented focus, the crowds that swarmed to see the Polopticomrama were, as one Irish paper put it, marks of ‘the absorbing interest felt by all classes in the American war.’ The Polopticomorama presented a unique opportunity for Irish people to learn about the conflict even as the battles still raged. One wonders how many of the visitors attending had family members who were engaged in the deadly actions it depicted. For some it must surely have been an emotional experience. (11)

Advertisement for the Polopticomorama in the Freeman's Journal (Freeman's Journal)

Advertisement for the Polopticomorama in the Freeman’s Journal (Freeman’s Journal)

(1) New York Times 20th October 1862; (2) Freeman’s Journal 25th July 1863, Cork Examiner 21st August 1863; (3) John J. Egan Panorama, The Diorama in Great Britain Part 1, The Diorama in Great Britain Part 2; (4) Palmquist & Kailbourn 2000: 369, Cork Examiner 19th August 1863, Pittsburgh Daily Post 6th April 1863, New York Herald 20th March 1863, Baltimore Sun 20th April 1863, Trenton State Gazette 24th April 1863, Freeman’s Journal 24th July 1863; (5) Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser 22nd July 1863, Baltimore Sun 20th April 1863, Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 29th August 1863; (6) The Freeman’s Journal 28th July 1863; (7) Freeman’s Journal 10th August 1863, Freeman’s Journal 1st August 1863, Freeman’s Journal 8th August 1863, Evening Freeman 15th August 1863, Freeman’s Journal 18th August 1863; Milwaukee Sentinel 11th April 1864; (8) Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 24th August 1863, Cork Examiner 19th August 1863, Cork Examiner 26th August 1863, Cork Examiner 29th August 1863, Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 25th August 1863, Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 2nd September 1863, Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 4th September 1863, Cork Examiner 28th August 1863, Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 29th August 1863; (9) Tipperary Vindicator 8th September 1863, Cheshire Observer 19th December 1863, Milwaukee Sentinel 11th April 1864, The Highland Weekly News 14th April 1864, Weekly Racine Advocate 27th April 1864, Fort Wayne Daily Gazette 23rd May 1864, Plain Dealer 10th June 1864, Daily Ohio Statesman 7th July 1864, Boston Herald 18th September 1863, New York Herald 30th March 1863, The Pantagraph 9th February 1864; (10) Freeman’s Journal 8th August 1863, Cork Examiner 9th September 1863; (11) Cork Examiner 28th August 1863;


Baltimore Sun

Boston Herald

Cheshire Observer

Cork Examiner

Daily Ohio Statesman

Evening Freeman

Fort Wayne Daily Gazette

Freeman’s Journal

Highland Weekly News

Milwaukee Sentinel

New York Herald

Pittsburgh Daily Post

Plain Dealer

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier

The Pantagraph

Tipperary Vindicator

Trenton State Gazette

Weekly Racine Advocate

Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser

Peter E. Palmquist & Thomas R. Kailbourn 2000. Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary 1840- 1865.

R. Derek Wood. 1993. ‘The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s’ in History of Photography 17, 3, Autumn 1993, pp. 284-295. Online version accessed here.

John J. Eagan Panorama at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

William Murphy Flickr