Redeeming the Cyclorama: Why the century-old attraction is anything but a monument to the Confederacy


Photograph by Hales Photo

In the fall of 1892, a series of advertisements appeared in the Atlanta Constitution promoting a colossal 360-degree painting depicting the Battle of Atlanta. The Cyclorama had won good reviews at its initial showings in the Midwest and drawn big crowds during its Georgia debut earlier that year. But ticket receipts had dwindled as the novelty faded. Anxious to rekindle interest, the attraction’s backers published a preposterous claim: “Only Confederate victory ever painted.”

In case anyone needed reminding, the men in gray were defeated at the Battle of Atlanta. On the afternoon of July 22, 1864, the Confederate army failed to break the Federal troops’ tightening chokehold, falling back with more than 5,000 casualties. Six weeks later, the Confederates evacuated and left the city to the mercies of General William T. Sherman.

“It’s crazy,” says Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, where the restored and reinterpreted Cyclorama will open in a new building on February 22, exactly 127 years to the day after it first opened in Atlanta. “This is a painting of a Northern victory, painted in the North for Northern audiences, and then it gets orphaned in the South, and we start presenting it like we won or something.”

“The Cyclorama tells a story like no other artifact in the country about the use and misuse of Civil War memory.”

Conceived in Chicago, created in Milwaukee, and premiered in Minneapolis, the Cyclorama was meant to celebrate the Union’s great triumph in capturing Atlanta and hastening the end of the Civil War. But when the painting moved South after a five-year run up North, new audiences flipped its meaning, bastardizing the spectacle into a curio of Confederate identity and a testament to white Southern pride. For decades, it was a masterpiece of misinterpretation.

Why should a memorial that has, for most of its existence, been used to glorify the forces of secession get a new lease on life at a time when many Confederate monuments are being removed? Because it demonstrates just how easily history can get distorted by a viewer’s preconceived notions. “The Cyclorama tells a story like no other artifact in the country about the use and misuse of Civil War memory,” Hale says.

The story begins not with a Southern accent, but with a band of beer-drinking Germans in Wisconsin.

With its slightly curved surface and subtle optical illusions, the Cyclorama is a low-tech form of virtual reality meant to immerse viewers in one of the decisive battles of the Civil War. History center visitors will enter the new rotunda that houses the painting through an enclosed passageway, ascend on an escalator, and step out onto a circular platform that looks like an old-time gazebo. The stage does not rotate, as it did in the Cyclorama’s Grant Park home.

“We wanted people to encounter the painting the way audiences did in the 1800s,” says Gordon Jones, the history center’s senior military historian and ranking Cyclorama expert.

The mammoth oil painting is 49 feet tall and 371 feet in circumference.

Photograph by Hales Photo

Viewers will be engulfed by a mammoth oil painting—49 feet tall and 371 feet in circumference—that transports them to the turning point of the battle. The Confederates are on the brink of overrunning the Federal line along the railroad between Atlanta and Decatur (near today’s Inman Park MARTA station). But the Yanks counterattack and repel them, led by Union General John “Black Jack” Logan, frantically charging atop his horse, Slasher.

The Cyclorama is a rare survivor of an entertainment form that was popular in the late 1800s. At least 40 panoramic artworks portraying battles, religious scenes, and disasters like the Great Chicago Fire toured the United States, Jones says. “They were the IMAX theaters of their time.”

Atlanta’s Cyclorama was the second work produced by the American Panorama Company, a Chicago-based venture with a studio in Milwaukee. The best panorama artists were in Europe, so the company brought 14 of them to the States, mostly from Germany. Their supervisor was Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, an artist who had done combat illustrations during the Franco-Prussian War.

“Whenever you see pictures of them with the painting, there’s usually a stein of beer nearby,” says Tom Heine, the artist’s great-grandson, who came to Atlanta with his family to see the Cyclorama as a boy in the 1950s. His ancestor made the trip to Georgia in 1885 to scout out a vantage point for the painting he titled Schlacht bei Atlanta (the Battle of Atlanta). Heine plans to travel from his home in Madison, Wisconsin, for the reopening this month.

The Battle of Atlanta debuted in Minneapolis in 1886 and then moved to Indianapolis, where crowds eventually declined and the enterprise went into receivership. A promoter from Georgia, Paul Atkinson, bought the painting for $2,500 with plans to show it in Atlanta and other Southern cities. He made some changes.

“It was a battle that helped free my ancestors and I’ll make sure that depiction is saved.”

In one tableau, frightened Confederate prisoners are seen being led away by Federal soldiers. “Atkinson was afraid that would be offensive to white Southern audiences,” Jones says, “so he had the uniforms repainted and made the Union soldiers prisoners.” Another detail—a captured Confederate flag—was painted out entirely.

The Cyclorama’s first address in Atlanta was a round, wooden building assembled specifically for the painting at Edgewood and Piedmont avenues, near today’s Georgia State University campus. After attendance tailed off, the painting was sold in 1893 for $1,100 to Ernest Woodruff, the banker who would later put together a syndicate to take over the Coca-Cola Company. He immediately resold the painting to George V. Gress, a lumber merchant who persuaded the city to let him move the attraction and building to Grant Park. The business went bust, and in 1898, Gress donated the painting to the city. The United Confederate Veterans were holding their convention in Atlanta that year—the 1890s equivalent of the Super Bowl—and it seemed like something the old Rebs would enjoy.

The city has owned the painting ever since, which is probably why it survived. Atlanta’s is one of only three panoramic paintings left in North America, along with a scene of Christ’s crucifixion in Quebec and one of Pickett’s Charge at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

“The Cyclorama survived because Atlanta adopted it as an icon,” Jones says. “It became tied in with the city’s self-image as rising from the ashes. It became a point of pride: We were burned in war, yet we endured and prospered.”

Atlantans have been wringing their hands over what to do with the Cyclorama for more than a century. Interest in the painting—and money to maintain it—has come and gone.

The painting languished for two decades in its original wooden shelter before the city commissioned a “fireproof” gallery in 1921. There was another burst of attentiveness during the 1930s when Atlanta used Works Progress Administration funds to restore the artwork and extend the you-are-there effect by adding real dirt and model soldiers to the diorama around its base. (They also restored the altered Confederate POW scene.)

One of the guiding lights on the WPA job was Wilbur Kurtz, a local historian who also served as technical adviser on the filming of Gone With the Wind. When the movie premiered here in 1939, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable visited the Cyclorama, and Gable reportedly quipped that the only thing wrong with the painting was that he wasn’t in it. Mayor William B. Hartsfield remedied the oversight, and one of the diorama soldiers was retrofitted with that famous pencil-thin mustache and knowing smirk. (The figure is being restored and will remain part of the show at the history center.)

The Cyclorama remained relatively popular through the 1950s and the Civil War centennial, but it was falling into disrepair. Some suggested moving it downtown or to the site of the new Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain.

The Cyclorama’s fate reached a head in the 1970s, ironically, during the administration of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor. Maynard Jackson bristled at the idea that the painting would molder away under his watch. He rather liked its original intent as a celebration of Union victory. “It was a battle that helped free my ancestors,” he said, “and I’ll make sure that depiction is saved.”

Under Jackson, the city and other donors spent $11 million to restore the painting and upgrade the building. After it reopened in 1982, the Cyclorama drew its largest crowds ever—more than 300,000 visitors one year—but once again, the momentum didn’t last. By 2005, annual attendance had dropped to between 50,000 and 60,000.

That year, facing the prospect of committing millions to again rescue the painting, the city asked the history center to consider taking responsibility for it. The center agreed to run the attraction’s gift shop for a few months to assess the situation.

“It was crickets down there,” remembers Hale, an attorney who was then chairman of the history center board. “We looked at [the project] and quickly backed away. But we started thinking about what we might do with it.”

The sky extends above visitors’ line of vision to maintain the three-dimensional illusion.

Photograph by Hales Photo

Six years later, in 2011, Mayor Kasim Reed asked Hale to head a commission of civic leaders to study the future of the Cyclorama. The group suggested three alternatives: patch the painting and keep it in Grant Park, move it to a new building in Centennial Olympic Park, or (the preferred option) relocate it to a museum-quality structure on the history center’s Buckhead campus.

Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker were having breakfast one Sunday morning when they read an AJC story about the commission’s recommendations. Lloyd, a successful real estate entrepreneur, and his wife had been looking for a legacy gift they could leave the city. He remembered the Cyclorama fondly from childhood visits with his mother, a high school history teacher in Greensboro, Georgia. “I grew up in a time and place where we marched to the cemetery every Confederate Memorial Day and put flags on the Confederate graves,” he says. “It took me a while to come to the conclusion that the right side had won the war, and that’s why we have a country.”

Lloyd met Hale for lunch the next day and offered a $10 million pledge to move the painting to the history center. That was enough for Hale to go to the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation, and other donors to raise an additional $25 million.

To compensate Grant Park for losing the Cyclorama, Zoo Atlanta was allowed to incorporate the old facility into its own $45 million expansion plan. And the city signed a 75-year lease for the history center to manage, display, and care for the painting in a new facility named for the Whitakers. Hale expects the Cyclorama to draw good crowds for a time, and then interest will wane, as it always has. “Its days as a tourist attraction are over,” he says. “It’s a historical artifact now, and that’s how we’re going to treat it.”

A crane lowers the painting into its new complex, which also includes a gallery for a famous railroad relic that had long been displayed in Grant Park: the Texas, the engine Confederates used to run down a raiding party of Union soldiers and spies in northwest Georgia during the “Great Locomotive Chase” of 1862.

Photograph by Hales Photo

Moving the Cyclorama from Grant Park for the first time in almost a hundred years and restoring it in a new home required a logistical operation that General Sherman would have appreciated. “We’ve had 200 people working on this,” says Jackson McQuigg, the history center’s vice president of properties. “We hand-picked every contractor, from the architects and artists to the truckers and crane operators.”

One of the main worries was how to transport it. The Cyclorama was painted on 14 sections of Belgian linen canvas that were sewn together in 1886 to form a continuous circle with one seam that could separate the work into halves. Some conservators said the canvas was too fragile to be moved. One recommended cutting it into large pieces. The history center decided to roll it up like a carpet. “Our main fear was that the oil paint might flake off,” McQuigg says. Conservators did lab tests on samples from the canvas, ran computer models, and gave their okay.

To secure the painting, a steel fabricator in North Carolina built two 45-foot-long scrolls. The canvas was painstakingly rolled onto them in a process that took a month and a half. Finally, one night in February 2017, the rollers were lifted by crane out of the old building and loaded onto flatbed trucks that transported them 12 miles north to Buckhead.

Once unrolled, the painting was rehung and rejoined, and restoration began. The surface was dingy and had darkened over the years. Workers gingerly removed yellowed varnish with chopsticks holding countless cotton balls dipped in acetone. The painting was also missing pieces. A 54-inch vertical section had been removed in the 1890s when a roof partially collapsed and left water damage. A 23-inch slice was taken out in 1921 when the canvas wouldn’t quite fit into the Grant Park building. Working from old photographs of the painting, artists recreated both sections as well as a seven-foot extension of sky around the top to give the vista more space to breathe.

The artists also restored one of the most noticeable features in the painting, an oversized eagle soaring over the battlefield. The big bird is Old Abe, the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin infantry regiment, and his presence is complete fiction. The regiment wasn’t at the battle, and Abe would have been tethered to a perch if he had been.

“Abe looked bad,” Jones says. “As the sky was touched up over the years, the blue paint was encroaching on him and leaving a jagged edge. We took care of that. We didn’t want an eagle that looked like a pterodactyl.”

Calinda Lee, the history center’s vice president for historical interpretation, first saw the Cyclorama more than 20 years ago as a graduate student at Emory. “There was a lot of eye-rolling in my group,” she recalls. “It struck me as an emotionally charged presentation that was meant to valorize the South and Atlanta’s role in the war. It felt dusty, like a relic from a time gone by.”

The attraction did nothing to address slavery and other causes of the war, the lingering toxins of Reconstruction, or the misbegotten mythology of the Lost Cause.

“It was an icon for only part of the city,” says Jones. “It was pretty much a whites-only story from the beginning.” In fact, Grant Park itself was segregated for decades.

Even the original, pro-Union depiction betrayed strong biases and historical inaccuracies. The painting includes hundreds of subjects, for instance, but not a single woman. A red blotch was long thought to be a female nurse’s apron, Jones says, but closer examination showed that it was a wounded soldier under a blanket.

One black person is visible, but it’s not clear what he’s doing. While there were no black troops at the Battle of Atlanta, African Americans often served as wagon drivers, stretcher bearers, and cooks. Those figures are all white in the painting.

“I’m pretty skeptical that there wouldn’t be more brown faces,” Lee says. “Think about how important black labor was to the South. We also know that thousands of African Americans were following Sherman’s troops by this time. . . . Why were all these people left out?”

Mindful of all this baggage, planners at the history center carefully studied how to convey a more complete story about the war’s legacy. They organized focus groups. They convened a group of educators, historians, and museum professionals from around the country to advise them on how to frame the presentation.

One of the people they consulted was Frank Smith, executive director of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. He questioned at first whether a cultural institution should spend millions of dollars burnishing an artifact so identified with the Confederacy. Though he grew up in Newnan and attended Morehouse College, Smith had never laid eyes on the Cyclorama before he traveled to see it newly installed at the history center.

“It’s quite a marvel,” he says. “When you walk into the middle of that scene, it takes all the air out of the room. But then you ask yourself what the painting is really about. What it shows is an army of liberation. If they tell that story—the larger story of what the Civil War was about—they’ll get a whole new audience. But it’s going to be tricky.”

The last part of the Cyclorama to be restored was the three-dimensional figures added to the diorama during the 1930s. The hills and red clay roads of the faux battlefield were refabricated in fiberglass, while the scores of soldier mannequins posed on the landscape were individually repaired and retouched. During Thanksgiving week last year, the octogenarian figures were transferred to a studio in a former grocery warehouse in East Point, where Joseph Lazzari, a young multimedia artist from Alabama, began to replace missing hands and cracked plaster.

It made for an eerie scene. The bearded soldiers, ranging in size from 18 to 42 inches tall according to the laws of perspective, looked like garden gnomes. But these were not happy elves. Some represented corpses. Others oozed red with mortal wounds. Most of them were finished on one side, the side visitors could see, and the other might have a hollow cavity for a chest or a featureless face with no eyes.

“I like to bring my dog to the studio,” Lazzari said, “but she was sniffing at their feet and staring up at them. She was weirded out, so I stopped bringing her.”

Looking over the mock soldiers, it didn’t take long to see that blue coats greatly outnumbered gray coats. Only four of the 128 diorama figures are Confederates. In fact, perhaps three-quarters of the troops in the painting itself are fighting for the Union.

The Cyclorama, it seems, has always shown visitors who won, even if some Atlantans didn’t want to see it clearly.

This article appears in our February 2019 issue.