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The battle to save ‘The Battle of Atlanta’

23 February 2017

In recent weeks, the American news media have been following the monumental task of preserving The Battle of Atlanta (1886), a late 19th-century cyclorama depicting Atlanta’s starring moment in the American Civil War. The work has been nearly scrapped on a number of occasions, only to be saved by the City of Atlanta in the 1970s and again now, with $35 million raised through private benefactors. In the current news cycle, the efforts to save the painting have offered a tale of human ingenuity, a race to restore a deteriorating piece of history. The 42-foot-tall painting, which is the length of an American football field, is on Belgian linen and has long been missing seven feet of sky from the top. This month, after the work was lifted through the roof of its long-time home in the city’s Grant Park and wound on to two custom-built spools, it was transferred to a new purpose-built space in the Atlanta History Center.

Those who have fought to save the cyclorama point out that the painting is one of the last of its kind, a technological and artistic innovation meant to dazzle 19th-century audiences by immersing them in a historical moment. But what version of American history does The Battle of Atlanta tell, and is it worth saving? Despite its value as one of the last and largest specimens of a now-extinct genre, The Battle of Atlanta’s importance as a work of art and technology cannot be untethered from what it represents and has represented through the years.

The Battle of Atlanta, with a 1930s diorama at its base. Photo: © Atlanta History Center

As Southern cities continue to grapple with their Confederate pasts, it’s right to ask whether The Battle of Atlanta celebrates the Lost Cause. The answer, of course, is complicated. Commissioned by a company from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and painted by a team of artists, the cyclorama toured the Midwest and Northern United States before finally landing in the city it depicted in 1892. It was a financial failure in Atlantla, despite being (wrongly) advertised as ‘the only Confederate victory ever painted’. Through the decades, there have been attempts to jazz up the piece to help it compete with newer technologies like film and television. Most famously, a diorama of 128 plaster figures was added in the 1930s (including, eventually, one resembling Clark Gable, to capitalise on the popularity of Gone With the Wind).

Like Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the subsequent film, it seems that The Battle of Atlanta was marketed as a nostalgic rendering of Lost Cause bravery, a tale of Southern sacrifice for a noble yet doomed effort. But what about today? For decades, every 11-year old student in Atlanta’s public schools has received a free tour of the cyclorama, which depicts exactly one African American person. In its new home in the Atlanta History Center, curators have vowed to add exhibitions that interpret the cyclorama ‘not only in the context of a single battle, but also in a national context of a country divided by war’. Among the contexts to be explored are ‘Reconstruction, segregation, [and] the Civil Rights Movement’. Moving the painting will allow historians to account more fully for the painting’s provenance and content, for what it depicts and what it leaves out.

In the 19th century, self-proclaimed experts travelled with panoramas and cycloramas to narrate the work (and earn money from them). This may be the saving grace of the extinct genre: the content, however objectionable by contemporary standards, can be reinterpreted as society moves on. In the cyclorama’s old home in Grant Park, visitors listened to purple narration that described how ‘under their battle flag of pure white stars and royal blue bars on a field of blood red, the lads from Alabama… pressed on’, fighting to keep another race in chains. If, in its new home, The Battle of Atlanta is put into its true historical context – as part of the complicated reckoning by Atlanta and the US with a shameful past— it has been worth saving after all.