Cats and cannons collide at Gettysburg’s feline-themed Civil War museum
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Before cats ruled the internet, the felines ran the battlefield. At least, that's history as told by Gettysburg's Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum. The museum features painstakingly detailed miniature scenes that portray pivotal battle moments using handmade clay cat figurines — 8,000 of them and counting.
Rebecca and Ruth Brown, the twin sister co-owners of Civil War Tails, were gearing up for their annual Labor Day scavenger hunt when Rebecca spoke with PA Local in late August. They'll have visitors intently studying their dioramas to find quotes, facts, and items within the scene. "We try to make it a mix so that kids and non-history-buffs can do it, but it's not too easy for history buffs!" said Rebecca.
They may not draw a crowd as big as the long-weekend visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park roughly two miles away, but the event will mark the special niche they've carved out in a town steeped in war history.
Though the Browns opened their museum in 2015, the labor of love dates back to the sisters’ childhood in suburban Philadelphia, where the home-schooled 11-year-olds first became captivated by Civil War books. "I read biographies on generals Lee and Grant," said the 39-year-old Rebecca. "And since I liked them, I made them out of clay."
Cats, she explains, were just easier to sculpt than people. "We've always had cats as pets. Everything we did was cats," she said. "So when I made Lee and Grant, they just automatically came out as cats." A hobby was born, and both sisters began making hordes of feline soldiers. In high school, they used their figurines to teach other home-schooled kids about the Civil War.
The Browns currently have close to a dozen dioramas on display. Each consists of a landscape reproducing a Civil War moment, with buildings and nature elements to scale, and one 1-inch-tall cat for each soldier. In addition to the full tableaus, there are also smaller scenes and older figures on view. Their biggest project depicts the Little Round Top battle on the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg, and is 10 years in the making.
The moment enacted in the 11-foot-long diorama, Rebecca tells PA Local, is a dramatic one. It takes place "just after the arrival of the 140th New York. Companies A & G have followed Col. O'Rorke's call, 'Down this way, boys!' and have come into line on the right of Col. Vincent's brigade. The other eight companies are still on the crest; soon, they will left-oblique down the slope to join A & G, but by then the fighting will be mostly over. Meanwhile, on the left of Vincent's brigade, the 20th Maine is beginning their bayonet charge. The left wing of the regiment is swinging forward."
Right now, there are 2,000 "cavalrycats" in this scene; each cat takes 10-15 minutes to make. The sisters continue to update the diorama while it’s on display.
The Browns try to keep their depictions of carnage family-friendly. Originally, Rebecca said, "we had one cat whose head had gotten blown off. I mean, his head was there — next to him." They opted to remove that figure, deeming it a little too graphic, though there are others with missing or severed limbs.
Ruth works as a lawyer, while Rebecca runs the museum. The Homestead, a 6,500-square foot Civil War-era house that was originally a dormitory for a girls' orphanage, is also their home; they live upstairs, and the dioramas are exhibited on the first floor.
"The original building, just north of us, was here during the battles,” Rebecca told PA Local. “And then our house was built in 1869 to expand it."
Living in Gettysburg is a dream come true for Rebecca, whose favorite landmark is The Angle battlefield. "It's really cool to be able to just walk down there and hang out,” she said. “Or to just go down to Little Round Top when I need photos of rocks."
The Homestead has many battalions of clay cats, but only two live ones, Kenzie and Aubrey.
The two-year-old siblings mostly stay on the third floor, where they can't get into kitty shenanigans (Kenzie has a penchant for knocking T-shirts off the merchandise shelves). But the Browns are not exclusively cat people, it turns out: The day after we talk, they’re getting a new dog.
So who is the target demographic for a cat-themed Civil War museum? "It runs the whole gamut," said Rebecca. "It's fun having cat people who aren't into history, because they go home wanting to read more [about the Civil War]." The place has also become popular with staffers from nearby Gettysburg National Military Park, Rebecca says.
"We have licensed battlefield guides and rangers coming in and enjoying seeing, to scale, a specific point in time on the battlefield. We had one fellow who works at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum come up and totally geek out that we had the right number of guys on the turret of the [USS] Monitor."
Every so often, they’ll get a social media mention that generates viral interest, and inevitably, polarized commentary, but the sisters welcome skeptics to Civil War Tails. "We'll have people come in who admit they didn't think they'd like it, and then they end up enjoying the detail, and seeing the history it’s grounded in,” said Rebecca. “And I'm like, kudos to you for shelling out admission to something you didn't think you'd like. That's cool."
Civil War Tails is open every daily except for Wednesdays, Sundays, and first Thursdays. You can find out more at their website, civilwartails.com.