Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum: Atlanta's Painting of Its Past

The Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum tells the story of the Battle of Atlanta, a major turning point not just in the war, but in the city's history. The Cyclorama is located in Grant Park, about one mile east of downtown Atlanta. Nearby attractions include the adjacent Zoo Atlanta, Turner Field and Oakland Cemetery. The Cyclorama is about five minutes from Interstate 20. There is no rapid transit to the site, but several bus lines serve the area.

A cyclorama is a huge painting, in this case 358 feet long and 42 feet wide, that is intended to be shown in the round. Roadside Georgia describes a cyclorama as "show in a cylindrical room or building that featured a painting on the outer wall of the room and the patrons seated (or standing) in the center.'' The paintings were sometimes augmented with three-dimensional figures placed in a diorama in front of the painting to give it more depth and realism. Atlanta's diorama features figures as tall as three feet. The bleachers in the middle of the theater rotate as visitors watch the painting and listen to narration.

Cycloramas became popular in America after the Civil War, and according to an article in America's Civil War, "During their heyday in the 1880s, seven cycloramas ... enticed audiences with depictions of Civil War action. ... All seven owed much of their appeal to a novel union of sculpture and painting.'' The paintings were the IMAX films of their day, traveling from city to city and drawing huge crowds. By the early 20th century, with the advent of motion pictures, cycloramas were no longer popular. Only 20 remain in the world, and only two of those are in the United States.

Atlanta's cyclorama depicts the Battle of Atlanta, the bloody day in July of 1864 that marked a turning point in the Atlanta Campaign. Although the city would not fall for another six weeks, Confederate losses that day were devastating. Tradition holds that Union General John Logan, who appears in the painting, commissioned the work for his vice-presidential campaign in 1884. He billed it as "Logan's Great Battle,'' although, in reality, he had little to do with the Battle of Atlanta. Logan died before the painting could help him in his career. The painting, completed in 1886 and first displayed in Detroit in 1887, traveled around the country for several years. It came to Atlanta in 1892 and became the property of the city in 1898. In 1921, the present building was specially constructed to display the painting.

Today, the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum exhibits the painting (which is billed as the largest in the world, although measurements show that Gettysburg's cyclorama is larger), a movie that places the Battle of Atlanta in its historic context, a museum with artifacts from the war and the Texas, one of the two locomotives that took part in the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862. The painting was restored between 1979 and 1982, although some experts believe that it needs more conservation work if it is to survive long-term. A field trip to the Cyclorama is a rite of passage for Georgia schoolchildren.

Reviews of the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum are very positive. Frommer's says, "For 21st-century tourists, the concept and story of the Cyclorama are as interesting as the action depicted, and the restoration is incredibly impressive.'' Even those who were not anticipating much found it "a totally unexpected and pleasant surprise!'' Another visitor says, "Okay, this is a Atlanta must-see. I not a Civil War buff, but I really enjoyed this.'' However, another person says, "I wasn't as impressed ... as others. ...If you are a Civil War buff, perhaps this would be more exciting to see.'' Even if you don't go for the history, the painting itself is an impressive artifact of a bygone era of entertainment.

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