In Atlanta, a Civil War painting stops stretching the truth

Why We Wrote This

The rescue of Atlanta’s Cyclorama has shown a desire to not only save history, but to examine how some of its themes – nationalism, valor, and equality – resonate today.

Atlanta Historical Center
After relocation, the Atlanta History Center began a two-year restoration of the cyclorama painting 'The Battle of Atlanta.' This included restoring seven feet of sky and accurately repainting defeated soldiers’ uniforms gray. Some 128 plaster figures that are the focal point of the diorama also were restored.

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The “Battle of Atlanta” was the Imax of its time: 10,000 pounds of Belgian linen and paint, 371 feet long and 49 feet tall. Created in 1886 by German artists using lantern projectors, it is only one of three remaining cycloramas in North America.

The giant canvas hangs on a circular wall, 360-degrees in the round, and is familiar to generations of schoolchildren in Atlanta. It shows soldiers clashing in July 1864 in Atlanta, a defeat for the Confederacy that would set the stage for Gen. William Sherman’s march to the sea.

Opened in February after a two-year hiatus, the Cyclorama is now less penny theater than an artifact of a city’s search for grace and the many self-told myths of a nation.

Today a new restoration of the Cyclorama has afforded curators at the Atlanta History Center, its new home, an opportunity to tell the story again, this time with original imagery and historical context. “This painting has meant so many things to so many different people throughout the course of its history,” says historian Tim Crimmins. 

When Tim Crimmins, way back in 1973, first saw “The Battle of Atlanta,” a towering wraparound picture of 60,000 soldiers in gray and blue clashing over the fate of a nation, he elbowed a friend.

“There’s no enemy on the battlefield,” he told him, chuckling. “There are only good guys fighting good guys.”

Created in 1886 by German artists using lantern projectors, the giant panoramic painting shows a broken and bloody battlefield, the 1864 Battle of Atlanta. It became a familiar school trip for generations of Georgians, one that was tinged with the mythmaking of the defeated Confederacy and the idea of a “Lost Cause.”

“This painting has meant so many things to so many different people throughout the course of its history,” says Mr. Crimmins. Still a fan, Mr. Crimmins is now a history professor at Georgia State University focused on the role of history on Atlanta’s development.

With its motto “resurgens,” Atlanta is a city where preservation has at times been a lost cause. Today, the battlefield depicted in the painting is buried under backyards. But the rescue of the Cyclorama has shown a desire to not only save history, but to examine how some of its themes – nationalism, valor, and equality – resonate today.

Its restoration, even its survival, wasn’t a given. By 2011, the Cyclorama, as it’s known, was moth-eaten and water damaged, drawing a scant 50,000 visitors a year. That presented an opportunity for a rethink. In short order, Atlantans raised $35 million in donations for a face-lift and a new home.

Opened in February after a two-year hiatus, the Cyclorama is now less penny theater than an artifact of a city’s search for grace and the many self-told myths of a nation.

“We’re in this modern landscape, but we can go back 150 years to where the fate of the country was decided, when the fate of slavery was decided, and it was right here under our feet,” says military historian Gordon Jones, who curated the “Battle of Atlanta” exhibit. “The Cyclorama is important only if you are honest with what you are telling about it, and not using it as a political propaganda tool.”

That has long been its fate, perhaps an inevitability given the stakes of the conflict it portrayed and the poisonous politics left in its wake.

The Imax of the Gilded Age

Constructed by the American Panorama Company of Milwaukee to tickle nationalistic fervor in Northern audiences, the “Battle of Atlanta” was the Imax of its time: 10,000 pounds of Belgian linen and paint, 371 feet long and 49 feet tall. It is only one of three remaining in North America. (A smattering of cycloramas are displayed in other countries.)

The painting’s vantage point is Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood. Kennesaw Mountain is to the north, Stone Mountain to the east. Downtown is to the west.

In July 1864 the war was going badly for the Union. Led by John “Black Jack” Logan – the largest figure, charging across the canvas on horseback – the “Yanks” hold back several desperate Confederate lunges, winning the battle, if not yet the campaign.

The dramatic tension of that battle day, July 22, is what gives the painting its visual punch, and would allow partisans on both sides to draw glory from it.

Atlanta Historical Center
Before the relocation of 'The Battle of Atlanta,' the Atlanta History Center teams began strength-testing the canvas, documenting the condition of the paint layers and fiberglass backing, and conducting stabilization conservation efforts.

For Atlanta it was a defeat that would set up Gen. William Sherman’s ruinous march to the sea and final victory for the Union.

After touring the North, the Cyclorama came to Atlanta in 1892, with retired generals from both sides of the war present for its unveiling. To goose attendance, a local promoter claimed it was “the only painting of a Confederate victory!” To support his spin, the promoter repainted a gaggle of dejected Confederate prisoners in blue, the color of the Union Army, and added a Union flag laying in the dirt.

Atlanta acquired the painting ahead of a convention of Confederate veterans and later installed it in a permanent building in 1921. The site, Grant Park, was segregated, so African Americans never got to see it.

There is only one black figure in the painting: a red-shirted rider, without a rifle.

“Here in Atlanta, the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative is adopted as a means of advertising the city,” explains Mr. Jones. That advertisement was Atlanta as “the only city of the New South living in the grace of the Old South.”

At the same time, the military painting came to embody Reconstruction, a period in which Southern mythmaking about the war intensified.

Forget me not

That impulse to hold onto history flared in the 1970s, when Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, raised money for a major restoration of the painting, arguing that the Battle of Atlanta had meaning for black Americans, too. ”It was a battle that helped free my ancestors,” Mr. Jackson said at the time, “and I’ll make sure that depiction is saved.”

For its latest restoration, the painting had to be extracted from the building by cutting holes in the roof. Sections were rolled up “like giant Tootsie Rolls,” says Howard Pousner, a spokesman for the Atlanta History Center, its new home, which has a separate exhibit on turning points in the Civil War, along with a celebration of barbecue.

Given its relevance as an artifact, “I was never worried about it being deep-sixed,” says Jackson McQuigg, who oversaw the excavation.

For the most part, the restoration by 200 subcontractors, from crane operators to yet another team of German painters, shines like new.

Gone is a moving clockwork dais and flash-bang lighting of the 1983 restoration. There is a new behind-the-scenes view of the canvas which is hung at a convex curve to give depth of field. A movie projected onto the canvas addresses stark questions of valor and values, including whether, in losing the war, the South won the peace via Jim Crow laws that rolled back black emancipation.

A golden eagle maneuvering across the battle field has been restored. A proper sky blue was laid down with oil paints, pulling the viewer deeper into the action. A retouched flag laying in the mud now bears its original Confederate insignia. And the Confederate prisoners once again wear gray.

Some revisions remain: A debonair Southerner Rhett Butler and his pencil moustache is depicted as a slain Yank – a detail added in 1939 after actor Clark Gable promoted “Gone with the Wind” in Atlanta.

“A lot of people come here by way of the Margaret Mitchell House to see the South romanticized,” says guide Wendy Corbett. “And not everybody is happy. Some people wish the focus was more on the military history. But every day I stand here and watch people’s faces – and you can see it starting conversations.”

Mr. McQuigg, vice president of properties at the history center, first saw the painting as a schoolchild in 1983. “There are a lot of places in America where there is not a willingness to talk about the tough subjects that we tackle with this painting,” he says. “But in Atlanta, we acknowledge slavery and its role in the war; we talk about the struggle for civil rights and human rights.”

“Some people get their feelings hurt. That’s OK [because nobody] who walks through the doors is expecting for history to be cleaned up and presented in a Chamber of Commerce way.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the university where Tim Crimmins teaches. He is a professor of history and director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

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