In the last decades of the 19th century, massive paintings, 360-degree renderings of war toured America. Originally intended as tribute to the Union Victory in the Civil War, the popular cycloramas were about making money just like most films of today. Each tour stop lasted about a year or two before moving to another round building to bring in new crowds. The paintings were not created to last long and eventually were privately purchased or discarded.
The July 22,1864 Battle of Atlanta was painted to cyclorama by the American Panorama Company, debuting in 1886 to the public at a Minneapolis cyclorama. The unique fact to this particular painting was not promoted until 1892 when the tour ended in Atlanta. After a few adjustments to the painting, it was promoted as the “Only Confederate Victory ever Painted.” The adjustment of frightened rebel prisoners repainted to fleeing Union soldiers worked, it was a great success.
That success lead to a permanent placement for the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama in 1921 at Grant Park. A 3-D effect was achieved in the 1930s with replica cannons, railroad tracks and plaster soldiers built between the painting and viewing platform. At the 1939 premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” Clark Gable visited Grant Park, after which a Rhett Butler figurine was added to the diorama, it was rumored to be at his request.
After 97 years at Grant Park, the aging building and needed expansion for the Atlanta Zoo brought the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama to a February 2018 moving day. The preparation for this immense move began in 2016 with conservators going inch by inch over the 42 foot, 359 in circumference foot painting. Twin 45 foot mechanical scrolls were assembled so the painting could be rolled, taking four days to completely roll and secure for move. Two holes were opened on the Grant Park building roof, followed by large cranes lifting and placing the scrolls onto flatbed trucks. The two trucks with the covered scrolls traveled by night on an undisclosed route to the Atlanta History Center.
With the 12 mile journey from Grant Park to the Atlanta History Center complete, the Battle of Atlanta has found a permanent, custom built 23,000 sq.ft home in the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. The custom design allowed for the restoration of nearly 8 feet of sky, 6 feet of a battle scene and other deleted pieces of artwork. The exhibits presented include context about the battles for Atlanta, the Civil War and history of cycloramas. Multiple perspectives interpret the painting as a single battle and a national battle with a country divided by war, including the impacts on American history. Patrons view from 15 feet above ground on a platform to see the entire painting at once. In addition, new exhibits and “behind the scenes” tours are available for better understanding and enjoyment of this history. The experience is enhanced with the placement of the restored 1856 Texas locomotive at the museum entrance.
The Texas, a famed locomotive that played a pivotal role in the 1862s Great Locomotive Chase has been on display with the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama since 1927. It also required a move and restoration, which was managed by the North Carolina Transportation Museum. The Texas is one of only two surviving Western & Atlantic locomotives, originally built in 1856 with continual upgrades throughout its life of service. The restoration date chosen was 1886, the same year of the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama being painted. It can be viewed in a glass-enclosed exhibit at the front of the museum building, visible at all hours. It the winter of 2018, the Texas, will open to the public with exhibition tours highlighting the nearly 51 years of service on the Western & Atlantic Railroad in Georgia, running between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Preservation of history is important as growth and development change the landscapes of life. Originally produced to make money, the Battle of Atlanta made its way to the very place it depicts with a story behind the artwork that larger in life, an historical treasure reminding us that significant events happen. With amazing engineering and care, history was moved making it easier to view, understand and enjoy.
The Atlanta History Center is located in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. The 33-acre experience features award-winning exhibitions, historic houses, enchanting gardens, interactive activities and year-round programs for every age. The Atlanta History Museum is located at 130 West Paces Ferry Road, NW, Atlanta, Georgia 30305. Visit www.atlantahistorycenter.com or call 404-814-4000 for more information.