Civil War Tails: Miniature Catfight
In the eternal battle between cats and dogs, a truce has been called at Gettysburg.
Now it's just cats vs cats.
The feline fighting is at Civil War Tails, a showcase of elaborate miniature dioramas of American Civil War battles (1861-1865), whose combatants are all cats. It's the creation of twins Rebecca and Ruth Brown, who began their unique approach to history in June 1995, at age 11. Rebecca had been reading about Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant and decided to make little clay versions of them as cats. Pleased, she and Ruth began making Yankee and Confederate soldier-cats to go with the generals.
"People ask us, 'Why cats?,'" said Rebecca. "And we say, 'We don't know. We weren't thinking about "why" when we were 11.'" But the sisters quickly discovered that tiny cats were easy to make -- much easier than tiny humans -- and they soon had hundreds of cats. Creating dioramas for their feline armies seemed like a fun next step, and the twins have been building dioramas ever since, each more elaborate than the last, requiring more and more cats.
After years of hauling their miniature battlefields around as a mobile attraction, the sisters settled in Gettysburg and opened Civil War Tails in late 2015. The cat total, said Rebecca, is approaching 10,000, with no plan to slow the population explosion.
Rebecca and Ruth's cats are childishly simple, reflecting their need for diorama consistency and efficiency. "Our guys don't look like cat cats because that's how they started out when we were 11," said Rebecca. The sisters' miniature work is otherwise meticulously detailed, but to create lifelike cats would simply take too long. "It could take three hours to make one cat," said Rebecca. "Ours usually take five, seven minutes."
For a diorama such as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, which has 1,900 cats, the savings in time is worth the occasional confusion of visitors, who sometimes mistake the cats for horses or humans, or even dogs (There is only one dog at Civil War Tails, a little mascot in a group of Union cat-soldiers).
Rebecca and Ruth's dioramas are obsessively accurate (aside from the humanoid cats) and are set on low tables so that children can view the Civil War at eye-level. For the sea battle between the Monitor and Merrimack, for example, the wake patterns of the ironclads' were reproduced after researching their speeds and hull shapes. The diorama of Little Round Top was built using topographic maps, and all of its rocks were positioned using historical photos. They were also made by hand -- all 2,594 of them.
Some Gettysburg fans were worried when Civil War Tails opened, thinking it would be in poor taste to portray soldiers -- many of them killed in the battles -- as cats with beards. But Rebecca and Ruth's sincere interest in Civil War military history has reassured their attraction's visitors. "No one's demanded their money back when they find our guys have tails," said Rebecca. "We've had Gettysburg Battlefield guides, and the superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, come in and like them. If he liked them, we're probably okay."
And then there are the kids, and the cat people, who normally would never visit a Civil War history attraction, but who gladly visit a place that has thousands of cats. "We had one lady who told us, 'I won't even walk to see a diorama,'" said Rebecca, "'but when I heard these dioramas were cats, I drove all the way from Missouri.'"