THE BATTLE OF THE PALMITO RANCH DIORAMA

Dozens of Gilbert, Arizona Highland High School students and history teacher Glen Frakes have been working to build another detailed Battle of Palmito Ranch scene, this time for display in the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.The students' and teachers' hearts were crushed after their original Civil War diorama was deemed inaccurate and changed dramatically by the museum director of the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas.

Museum director Jeff Hunt, who wrote a book on the battle, tore the diorama apart, "fixed" the soldiers to what he believed was historically accurate and put the altered diorama back on display in July 2008. Hunt would not return the diorama so the students could fix it themselves, and has never been held accountable for his actions.

The Texas Civil War Museum heard about the students' plight. After they were denied by the Camp Mabry museum to pay to move the diorama to the Fort Worth museum for repair, a Civil War Times magazine columnist who has followed the story and the Fort Worth museum convinced Frakes to build another diorama of the same battle, said Cynthia Harriman, director of communication and education at the Fort Worth museum.

Frakes originally said he was retiring from diorama-making after overseeing 21 dioramas of American battles over his 35 years teaching history.

"We were very touched by what had happened to the students," Harriman said. "We looked at their work, and it was fabulous. Their price is great. It just seemed like the right thing." The Texas Civil War Museum is paying the students $25,000 for materials and shipping. The diorama will be displayed next to a few Battle of Palmito Ranch items the museum already has. "It will fit right in there perfectly," Harriman said. "Our museum is the largest Civil War museum west of the Mississippi River with about 25,000 visitors a year. I feel like this diorama will be seen by many more people. It's coming to a very good place."

About 200 Highland students and four teachers originally spent more than three years and more than 6,000 hours donating their time to paint, assemble and construct the original detailed Battle of Palmito Ranch scene.This time, five times the number of enthusiastic student volunteers, with most of their work after school, should complete the 5-foot-by-10-foot diorama by May, Frakes said. They have already fully assembled and painted the 700 soldiers and 200 horses from the kits ordered from England and Australia. They are also building the terrain base made of wood and celluclay, a professionally made papier-mache."The kids have put their hearts and souls into it," said Frakes, a former Marine corporal during the Vietnam War. "I'm just very proud of these kids."

Kanoe Kahalewai, a Highland junior in Frakes' American history class, said she's helping to build the diorama because it was "unfair" what happened to the first one."It deserves to be redone," the 16-year-old said. "It's tedious, monotonous work, but it pays off after you see the finished product. The fact that it will be in a museum and cherished, it's kind of awesome."

The original diorama was commissioned by the previous curator of the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas. He chose the Highland High School History class students of Glen Frakes because of his record of building well done dioramas. They have been on display in many museums including the Smithsonian Institute. The display was on display for only seven weeks at the Austin museum before the new curator Jeff Hunt arbitrarily "dismantled" the diorama. He did it after hours when the museum was closed. Some said it looked as though someone had taken an arm and just swept the pieces off its base. Arms, legs from men and horses, rifles and swords were broken and/or bent. There was outrage from teachers, politicians, historians, re-enactors through out the country over how this act not only destroyed the diorama but any passion the students had for history. Regardless of what might have been wrong or right about the diorama, there was a better way to handle the situation.

< Mr. Frakes and students working on the final diorama

Frakes said battle dioramas are a single scene intended to represent events that take place over the course of minutes, hours, days or even weeks. So dioramas have to compress both time and space to create a coherent, comprehensive picture that viewers can understand and learn from. As such, dioramas always include some artistic interpretation of these events by their crafters and never offer a competely accurate telling of the story as might be offered in a video or the written word. Sometimes, a diorama maker might add something (or leave something off) that would seem wrong to a historian seeped deeply in knowledge of the diorama’s subject. But that intentional act conveys important information to the uninitiated, or removes distracting clutter. For example, a diorama might leave off the roof or wall off of a particular building so viewers can peer inside to gleen additional details. Military units and equipment might be placed closer together than is porportionally accurate in order to fit other relevant items onto the same diorama.

And sometimes, key details are simply unknown to modern historians and the diorama maker has to make a good guess. Frakes said when he worked with his students to create the first of Highland’s five dioramas at the Texas museum — about the Battle of the Alamo — it wasn’t known where some of the major players were killed that they wanted to represent. So the students tried to place those figures in logical locations or where they were more likely to be seen by viewers. What all of this adds up to is dioramas never should be changed or rebuilt without at least consulting with the original crafters, when possible. Frakes made it clear that serious thought and planning goes into every detail of a diorama.

The battle was originally thought to be spelled "Palmetto" Ranch according to Hunt's book, but Texas historians confirmed that it should be spelled "Palmito," Frakes said. It would seem Mr. Hunt had some inaccuracies of his own.

While there is not complete justice in how things turned out, the people at the Fort Worth museum have gone out of their way to right a wrong in the right way.

The information above came from articles written by Opinion Columnist Le Templar of the East Valley Tribune in the Phoenix Arizona area with only slight modification.

Mr. Frakes and students with second diorama ......The first diorama

 

In the views from the diorama, the view showing the French artillery battery is from the original diorama while the other views are from the "corrected diorama." In the "corrected diorama the French are not shown in their red and blue distinctive uniforms. You can also see the Union Line of Skirmishers is different. Note the thin, standing line of Union skirmishers in the "corrected view.". As noted below skirmishers in the Union Army during the Civil War were encouraged to make use of "cover" and often deployed in groups of four (Comrades in Battle) and not necessarily moving to a single "line" formation, though that was the usual final deployment formation. This formation of a line of skirmishers perpidicular to the enemies advance and foward of the skirmishers main body of troops, directed the most firepower forward and with correct spacing reduced losses from artillery. It is believed the Line of Skirmishers formed by the 62nd covering the Union retreat on the road was made up of two files staggered (Comrades in Battle) with each line firing a volley while the other reloaded.The 62nd tactic was especially effective once the Union force were on the peninsula opposite Boca Chica Pass so that no flanking movements could be formed.

BASIC SKIRMISH MOVEMENTS OF THE 1860s (both sides of the Civil War used basically the same drill manual)

1.Movements should not be performed with the same precision as in closed ranks.
2.Skirmishers should move so as to keep the main body of troops covered.
3.Every body of skirmishers should have a reserve behind the center of the line.
4.Skirmishers will move at quick or double quick time
5.Pieces will be carried in manner most convenient
6.General alignment should be preserved, but no advantage of the ground should be given up to preserve the alignment. Take cover when available.
7.Normally, on open ground, there will be five paces between men in the same comrades in battle. In no case will comrades in battle lose sight of one another.
8.In commencing fire, men in the same rank should not fire at once, and men of the same file should ensure one or the other is always loaded.
9.Skirmishers should be trained to load while marching, halting an instant when charging cartridge and priming.
10.Skirmishers should be practiced in loading and firing while kneeling, lying down and sitting.

With these basics in mind, the first thing to help break the confusion of skirmish commands is to understand the command logic. First, the company moves and functions in groups of fours called “Comrades in Battle”. In skirmish commands, a reference to the right file, left file or center file actually refers to the group of four to the right, left or center, respectively. Furthermore, most marching commands like right wheel, by the right flank, by files right, communicate a motion to the side being stated. Skirmish commands are somewhat different. “Company- as skirmishers- on the right file- take intervals- MARCH”, indicates that the rest of the Company will not move to the right, but will in fact deploy off of the right file (group of four) which will in fact move forward but straight ahead. There will then be twenty paces between each group of four in order to allow the deployment of each individual group. The rear rank will step up and to the left of their front rank counterpart with five paces separating each man. The deployment and spacing of the “Comrades in Battle” will remain the same despite the command with the only differences being the file from which you are deploying (right, left, center).

Once the whole line is deployed, each file (Rear and front rank 1 or rear and front rank 2) will function as partners, firing in sequence to assure that there is always a loaded rifle at the ready. This technique is very important, particularly when skirmishers are deployed before the main body of infantry to protect or screen against cavalry. Horses can cover short pieces of ground quickly, and experienced troopers will wait for inexperienced skirmishers to discharge their weapons at once before making a charge that can easily route a scattered, small infantry group.

I have to confess to may own change in the diorama image I use in the description of the battle. In the original diorama there was a beautifull model of a paddle wheeler on the Rio Grande River even with the Union line.

As there is no evidence to support the presence of a sidewheeler boat at the scene of the battle, I removed it so as not to raise questions about any role it may have had in the battle (such as why didn't the Union troops board the boat to get back to Boca Chica).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detail from the diorama showing the physical nature of the Confederate Cavalry engaging the Union Line of Skirmishers and of the Colored 62nd withdrawal to the Boca Chica Road.

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