Friday, November 8, 2019

Review - "Gettysburg's Coster Avenue: The Brickyard Fight and the Mural" by Mark Dunkelman

[Gettysburg's Coster Avenue: The Brickyard Fight and the Mural by Mark H. Dunkelman (Gettysburg Publishing, 2018). Softcover, map, photos, drawings, notes. Pp. 50. ISBN:978-0-9993049-1-4. $18.95]

The author or editor of six well-received books and numerous articles published about the men and exploits of the 154th New York, Mark Dunkelman is the modern voice of the regiment and chief custodian of its historical memory. Among the 154th's most trying Civil War experiences was its doomed July 1, 1863 defense of Kuhn's Brickyard on the northeastern outskirts of Gettysburg. The story of this action and the mural that Dunkelman (with artist and co-designer Johan Bjurman) created to commemorate it is the subject of Gettysburg's Coster Avenue: The Brickyard Fight and the Mural.

The first part of the book is a well composed overview of the "Brickyard Fight" between Col. Charles Coster's understrength brigade (the 154th NY flanked on either side by the 27th Pa and 134th NY) and an attacking pair of North Carolina and Louisiana brigades under Col. Isaac Avery and Brig. Gen. Harry Hays. After a brief but furious assault, Avery's Tar Heels and Hays's Tigers utterly smashed Coster's Brigade, overlapping both flanks and inflicting heavy casualties. The piece also discusses the erection decades later of the 154th's monument, with the nearby street renamed Coster Avenue in honor of the brigade's stand that some have credited with helping save Cemetery Hill from capture. Though Coster Avenue was not unknown to visitors, for many decades Gettysburg tourists as a whole typically skipped the Brickyard Fight site in favor of seeing those associated with famous July 2-3 events [ed. I'll reluctantly admit that I never went there during either of my 1990s visits to the battlefield]. Though July 1 events like the Brickyard Fight eventually received their just due in the literature, the Dunkelman-Bjurman mural preceded the publication of David Martin and Harry Pfanz's standard histories by a number of years and undoubtedly had a singularly positive effect on increased site visitation and wider recognition of what occurred there.

In engagingly personalized fashion, the second part of the book traces the story of the Coster Avenue mural from initial brainstorming and development of the 1977 concept sketches through the original 1988 dedication and subsequent 2001 and 2015 major restorations. Readers might justly wonder how oil canvases protected only by layers of varnish were expected to fare when fully exposed over time to both the seasonal elements in Pennsylvania and the predations of vandals. Surprisingly, the mural was never defaced, but, unsurprisingly, the weather slowly wreaked havoc with the first two versions. The book doesn't reveal how long the mural project was originally intended to last, but if permanency was the goal it quickly became clear that it would be far too costly to repaint and reseal the massive canvasses on a regular basis. Something new had to be done, and the elegant solution of paint on glass for the current 2015 version seems to have worked very well, with the only major drawback being the unavoidable surface glare.

As one would hope to find in an art discussion book, Dunkelman's slim 81/2" x 11" paperback is well stocked with illustrations. Dozens of archival and modern photographs (the latter in both color and B&W) are sprinkled about, and the map located at the back of the book clearly depicts both the historical clash at the Brickyard in some detail and the location of the battle site in relation to the modern street map of Gettysburg. The only major lament is the lack of a large-scale photographic representation of the mural in all its glory, something the volume's landscape format could have well facilitated over a series of pages. On the other hand, nothing can replace an actual visit to the site, and perhaps a little bit of mystery can provide some extra incentive to seek out the place in person.

A significant part of Gettysburg's visitor experience three decades on from its original installation, the Coster Avenue mural has finally received a fine history of its own.

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