Call it synchronicity. In the midst of all the events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s Atlanta campaign, the Atlanta History Center and City of Atlanta announced an agreement to move the Cyclorama (a depiction of the Battle of Atlanta) to a purpose-built, 23,000-square-foot building on the center’s campus.
Though Atlanta City Council must still approve the agreement, it seems a win-win-win situation. Zoo Atlanta gets the Cyclorama’s Grant Park building. The city, which will still hold the painting’s license, no longer has to figure out how to keep the doors open. The center adds a rare example of a form of entertainment (the IMAX of its day, if you will) that was all the rage in the late 19th century.
Its special value lies, of course, in its subject matter. The battle scene adds heft and glamour to the center’s already well-regarded Civil War collection.
“The Cyclorama has great potential to help brand the center as the place you go to learn about the Civil War and the South,” says Gordon Jones, the history center’s senior military historian and curator.
This move will be a game changer for the Cyclorama itself. The 360-degree painting will be restored to its original shape and dimensions. When installed in its Grant Park building in 1921, eight feet of sky and all of Decatur Street were lopped off to make it fit; in all, 3,268 square feet will return to view. In addition, it was hung like a shower curtain rather than in the hourglass shape that created a three-dimensional effect.
The center has acquired materials that, though sure to be of interest in themselves, will help ensure a proper restoration. It owns six of ten photographs taken of sections of the original gridded sketch (37.5 x 5 feet); the photos are about 12 x 20 inches each, sized so that the artists could hold them as a guide while they painted. It also has two guidebooks published about the piece, one of which contains photos of the completed piece.
Taking the longer view, executive director Sheffield Hale believes that housing the Cyclorama at the Atlanta History Center creates the opportunity to consider it in more depth, to examine what the piece says about our culture, even now.
“Let’s move beyond the literal narrative to talk about our country and the way it perceived its past,” he says. “Let’s see what it teaches us about historical memory.”
Time and context have contributed to its shifting meanings. Painted in Milwaukee in 1866 and toured in the North, the Cyclorama depicted the Battle of Atlanta from the point of view of the victors.
When promoters brought it to the South in 1893, they rejiggered the painting to conform to its new context: Confederate POWs were transformed into Union deserters, and, after the success of the film Gone with the Wind in 1939, one of the dead Confederate soldier’s faces was repainted in the likeness of Clark Gable. It had transmogrified into a symbol of the Lost Cause.
In the 1970s, as Atlanta rolled toward black majority and elected its first black mayor, the maintenance of the Cyclorama attraction took on a political edge. According to Jones, after some in the community complained that the city was not going to take care of “their heritage,” Mayor Maynard Jackson retorted (as reported in the AJC) that he would definitely save the painting because the right side had won.
Hale notes that research conducted during the past 25 years suggests the important role the Battle of Atlanta played in the outcome of the Civil War.
“Despite the North’s superior forces, victory was not inevitable,” he says. “That victory helped Lincoln to be re-elected and raised northern morale,” he says.
Outgunned, Confederate leaders had hoped to hang on until the North became so tired of battle that it would give up. It’s a strategy that worked better for the Viet Cong, and it seems to be relevant today in Afghanistan.
From the restoration to the reinterpretation, the Atlanta History Center’s plans suggest that even if you’ve seen the Cyclorama, you haven’t really seen it — yet.
All photos courtesy Atlanta History Center.