Update 7/1/2015: The Atlanta Cyclorama exhibit in Atlanta’s Grant Park has shut down in preparation for its move to a new location at the Atlanta History Center in the Buckhead area of the city. It is to go back on display in this new location sometime in 2017.
In the years following the Civil War before the invention of motion pictures, huge circular paintings called Cycloramas were produced by artists to depict historic events on a grand scale as a form of entertainment. Perhaps half a dozen or so were produced of Civil War events. The artists did their research, visiting the battlefields and getting accounts of the action from veterans of the fighting so the paintings were both visually appealing and with minor exceptions, historically accurate.
Sadly, many of these epic works have been lost over the years. One cyclorama depicting the fighting on Missionary Ridge and around Chattanooga was destroyed in a tornado while on display in Nashville in 1892 or shortly thereafter. Others that have disappeared into history include cycloramas of Vicksburg, Second Manassas, Shiloh, and the naval battle between the U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (a.k.a Merrimac). Two have survived. One of these is the Gettysburg Cyclorama. This painting, which has been on display at Gettysburg since 1913, underwent extensive restoration in the 2000s and was moved from its old building to its own exhibit hall in the new Gettysburg Visitor Center in 2008. The other survivor is the Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama.
The Atlanta Cyclorama was painted in The American Panorama Company studio in Milwaukee in 1885 and ’86. It depicts the July 22nd, 1864 Battle of Atlanta, a Union victory in Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. The traditional story of the painting’s origin is that Union General John Logan, who ran for Vice President in the 1884 election on the Republican ticket with James G. Blaine, planned to run for president in 1888 and commissioned the painting as a type of giant campaign poster. Logan did play a prominent role in the battle; he was commander of the 15th Corps and assumed temporary command of the Army of the Tennessee after General James B. McPherson was killed in action that day. Logan is on his horse rallying the troops in the painting, but the general died December 26th, 1886 and probably never saw the completed work as it did not go on display until February 26th, 1887.
Studio head William Wehner brought several German artists to Milwaukee to work on cycloramas for American Panorama. The artists specialized in certain areas, such as landscape or human figure painting. They traveled to Atlanta to see the landscape and talk to local people and veterans who witnessed or participated in the battle. The result is a historically correct painting both in terms of the fighting and the terrain where the action took place. One minor place where artistic license took over is the depiction of Old Abe the War Eagle, the bald eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. Old Abe is shown soaring over the battlefield, but in July of 1864, the 8th Wisconsin was on duty in Mississippi and not present at the Battle of Atlanta.
After a few years on display in various cities, the Atlanta Cyclorama arrived in its namesake city in 1892. It was donated to the City of Atlanta in 1898 and has been at its current location in Grant Park next to the Atlanta Zoo since 1921.
The painting is 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference. In the 1930’s a 30 foot deep diorama foreground filled with soldier figures and landscape materials was added to the cyclorama. The painting and diorama seamlessly blend together and it’s nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Originally, the diorama was made of clay and wood, but in an extensive 1979 renovation and repair of the painting, the foreground figures and landscaping were updated using plastic and fiberglass materials.
Tours of the Atlanta Cyclorama include a 14 minute overview film about the Atlanta Campaign, followed by admission to the cyclorama theater itself. The seating area rotates around the cyclorama as narration describes the events shown in the painting as they come into view. A staff member introduces the narration and answers questions at the conclusion.
The cyclorama building also houses a Civil War museum of artifacts, including one very large artifact, the steam locomotive Texas. The Texas was used to chase down and capture the James J. Andrews Union raiding party that had stolen another locomotive called the General at Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) Georgia in what became known as The Great Locomotive Chase.