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, ...
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