Few American cities have a richer historical heritage than Atlanta. Within a few miles in each direction are found remnants of battles that contributed to the almost total destruction of the city during the Civil War. It was a cold, wet, and windy day when we came to Stone Mountain Park, a few miles to the east of Atlanta. Perhaps this is the best kind of weather in which to look back on the Civil War and the traditions of Georgia. Balmy sunshine might romanticize the sacrifices of both Armies and make it seem more like Disneyland, with all the artifices that implies. But Stone Mountain, a massive treeless dome of granite standing 825 feet above the surrounding plain, can tell no story of greater courage than that of the battle that was bitterly fought here.
Sculptured onto the mountain's sheer northern face are three colossal equestrian figures -- Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Although the figure of Lee is as tall as a nine-story building and the entire sculpture rests in a niche the size of a city block, the figures seem small in comparison with the size of the mountain. This impressive sculpture took 57 years to complete.
In a soft rain the gray mountain testifies to the anguish of a long, bloody war that Georgians will never forget. Two impressive statues stand on either side of the trail in front of the mountain. On one side, a mother with a baby on her shoulder holds out a beseeching hand. Below her is the legend: ``The Country Comes Before Me.'' On the other side, the soldier stands with a raised broken sword, with the legend: ``Men who saw night coming down on them could somehow act as if they stood at the edge of dawn.''
Famed for its attractions, and easily accessible by car or bus from downtown Atlanta, Stone Mountain Park is a pleasant place for a family outing. Its offerings include nature trails, camping, a grist mill, and industries; also a riverboat marina, fishing, a carillon and amphitheater, a golf course and skylift, a train ride,and an antique auto museum.
But the most fascinating magnets are the ``War in Georgia'' exhibit at Confederate Hall and the long train which has been converted to a museum illustrating the state's role in Colonial and Civil War periods. The ``War in Georgia'' is a three-dimensional relief map that uses narration, sound, and lighting effects to take the viewer through decisive Civil War battles, as General Sherman captured Atlanta.
Sherman had moved against Joe Johnston's Confererate Army the same day Ulysses Grant crossed the Rapidan. From the distant North, General Sherman's campaign seemed to have little hope of victory. Wise old General Johnston, sparring, sidestepping, shifting back, understood a need to keep Sherman from forcing a showdown. But to President Jefferson Davis, Johnston seemed too reluctant to make a commitment, and Johnston was replaced by ``slugging'' John B. Hood. With lights, music, and narration, the story of the Battle of Atlanta is dramatized here.
On May 4, 1864, as Grant pressed into the wilderness, Sherman's Army began marching south from Chattanooga toward Atlanta, one of the South's most important industrial cities. Sherman's force consisted of three armies -- General Thomas's 61,000, General McPherson's 24,000, and General Schofield's 14,000. Twenty-five miles southeast of Chattanooga, holding a line across the main railroad near Dalton, Ga., lay Gen. Joe Johnston's Army of 50,000 Southerners. Sherman and Johnston were equally matched, brilliant generals; Johnston realized he couldn't stop Sherman immediately, but he could delay him.
Sherman's strategy -- cutting the main railroad lines -- eventually forced General Hood to abandon Atlanta. Sherman marched in and burned the city. Native Georgians will never forget Sherman's ``March to the Sea.'' The Union soldiers, living off the populace, destroyed the food they didn't eat and any supplies the Confederates might find useful. Descendants still tell stories of the Yankees tearing up featherbeds with their bayonets.
Although General Sherman forbade molesting Southern women, children, or unarmed men, he still seemed cruel. He had to destroy the Southern ability to continue the war. The burning of Atlanta was the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
Well worth visiting, the museum in a renovated railroad train (not the one that tours the park) just behind Confederate Hall depicts Colonial and Revolutionary times as well as a history of Stone Mountain. The exhibits offer an overview of various immigrants who contributed to the creativity of early Georgia. Overlooked treasure
For another view of what Georgians call ``the War between the States,'' you need not leave Atlanta to see the remarkable Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta. It is found in Grant Park (not named for the Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, of course, but for a generous citizen who gave the park to the city). The cyclorama, displayed in a round building, may be the largest painting in the world, about 50 feet high and 400 feet in circumference.
The painting was primarily done by Polish and German artists who painted similar canvases to glorify the German victories in the Franco-Prussian war. One of the artists, Theodore Davis, on the staff of Harper's Weekly, had been on the battlefields near Chattanooga as well as at Sherman's headquarters on the torrid afternoon of the July 22 battle. He recorded the action, places, and color of the Georgia campaigns. It is to his intimate knowledge and sketches made on location of the various regiments of cavalry and the piled up battle smoke -- the sky streaked with crimson, pale green, and yellow in the wild summer sunset -- that the cyclorama owes its accuracy.
On the site of the battlefield, the immigrant painters built a 40-foot-high wood tower from which they studied the terrain. They made sketches of characteristic details of the battle area, winding red dirt roads, eroded gullies, the organ-pipe formation of the pine woods, and the rolling fields. Confederate veterans offered reminiscences and advice. The veterans who saw the finished painting were overwhelmed by the spectacle. Emotions were rekindled by the pictured violence of the two Armies, the serried ranks in battle smoke, the galloping horsemen.
The painting was exhibited in 1891 in a wood structure, and in 1921 it was brought to Grant Park to the present imposing marble building.
In 1936, by means of a Works Projects Administration grant, the painting was made three-dimensional by the addition of blasted tree stumps and bushes that look battle-torn, broken rails and crossties, lifelike plaster figures of Confederate and Federal soldiers, and other fragments of war which form the battlefield at the base of the canvas. In viewing the painting, one has difficulty determining where the real ends and the illusion begins. The seating area revolves slowly while special light, music, and sound effects make this an unforgettable experience.
Civil War buffs may not want to overlook the town of Roswell, north of Atlanta, where monied people summered to escape the oppressive coastal climate. Fine examples of classical Southern architecture have been restored and are open to the public.