“Cyclorama” is the name given to the huge, late-nineteenth-century painting depicting the Civil War battle fought July 22, 1864, east of Atlanta. Housed at the Atlanta History Center and owned by the city, the Cyclorama is a national tourist attraction and cultural treasure. It is one of only two cycloramas in the United States, and at 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference, it is the largest painting in the country.
Cycloramic murals—building-sized paintings hung circularly for viewing from the inside—were a European innovation of the late nineteenth century. Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux supervised the painting of a cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, which came to this country in 1884 and remains a prominent attraction at the Gettysburg National Military Park.
German artists also produced cycloramas, such as those depicting battles of the Franco-Prussian War. A number of them were recruited to Americain 1883 by William Wehner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who ran the American Panorama Company, dedicated to cycloramic art. Thirteen artists painted The Battle of Missionary Ridge in 1883-84 and then turned to the Battle of Atlanta as the subject for their next mural. The company’s choice of subject was influenced by one patron, the Republican Illinois senator John A. Logan, who ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 1884 and was rumored to be a candidate for the presidential nomination in 1888. A former Union general, Logan commanded the Fifteenth Corps in the Battle of Atlanta and assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee after the death of General James B. McPherson.
In the summer of 1885, the Milwaukee artists came to Atlanta for field study. Twenty years after the war, histories of the battle were in print, but the artists received most of the technical advice from Union and Confederate veterans. Assisting was Theodore Davis, wartime illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, who had followed General William T. Sherman’s armies. With trench lines outside Atlanta still extant, the artists fixed as the point of reference a site just inside Union lines at the Georgia Railroad, running eastward from the city. From a forty-foot tower they studied the terrain and sketched layouts. After several months on site, they returned to their Milwaukee studio, where, supervised by F. W. Heine and August Lohr, the artists—all specialists in landscapes, figures, and animals—completed the painting.
At its debut in Detroit in February 1887, the work was billed as “Logan’s Great Battle” (although the senator had died three months before). The heavy canvases were draped on wooden frames, which were moved and reassembled at Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then Indianapolis, Indiana, where the Cyclorama opened in May 1888. Wehner sold the painting to an Indianapolis art exhibit company, which in turn sold it in 1890 to Paul Atkinson of Madison, Georgia.
Atkinson, already the owner of the Missionary Ridge cyclorama, sent the Atlanta painting to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and brought the former to Atlanta, exhibiting it in a circular building on Edgewood Avenue until February 1892. Missionary Ridge then traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, where it was later destroyed in a hurricane; in its place, The Battle of Atlanta opened in Atlanta on February 22, 1892. Resale to various owners led to its purchase at the Edgewood Avenue exhibition hall by Atlanta businessman George V. Gress, who donated the painting to the city in March 1898 after providing it with housing in Grant Park. Grant Park is a public park established in 1883 and named for Atlantan Lemuel P. Grant, the donor of the park land, who as a Confederate engineer had surveyed for the fortifications around Atlanta.
The painting takes in a wide sweep of the area: the skyline of Atlanta, Kennesaw Mountain, Stone Mountain, and the smoke of a cavalry fight at Decatur. Details of the battle are as if the viewer stood just inside the Fifteenth Corpslines at about 4:30 p.m. on July 22. Near the Troup Hurt House, a two-story, red-brick building (destroyed during the war and placed erroneously by the artists too near the railroad), Confederates have broken through the Union lines and are resisting a Union counterattack. Farther off is Sherman’s headquarters at the house owned by Hurt’s brother Augustus, on the site of which is now the Carter Center. There Sherman is about to receive the ambulance carrying General McPherson’s body. A prominent figure is the man who commissioned the painting, General John “Blackjack” Logan, galloping heroically to the battlefront ahead of reinforcements that will restore his lines. The painting also shows more distant fighting on other parts of the battlefield, especially Confederate attacks on the hill held by General Mortimer Leggett (an area now bisected by Interstate 20 at Moreland Avenue).
The Cyclorama was housed in Grant Park for more than a century. In 1921 a new building, designed by Atlanta architect John Francis Downing, took in the painting and, six years later, the locomotive Texas, famous in the Andrews Raid of 1862. In 1934-36, funded by the Works Progress Administration, artists Weis Snell, Joseph Llorens, and Wilbur Kurtz fashioned plaster figures for a diorama as foreground for the painting. Set on a flooring of red clay, the shrubbery, cannon, track, and 128 soldiers (twenty inches to fifty inches tall, to fit in perspective with the scale of the painting), give the painting more realism and extend it thirty feet toward the viewing platform. After Clark Gable visited the Cyclorama in December 1939 while in Atlanta for the premiere of Gone With the Wind, Mayor William B. Hartsfield had Snell make a figure of a Union corpse with a face painted to resemble Gable’s Rhett Butler.
Deterioration of the painting and water damage led to an $11 million restoration of the Cyclorama in 1979-81. Under the supervision of Gustav Berger, the canvas was cleaned and treated, and the paint colors were restored. In the diorama the clay was replaced with a fiberglass and plastic flooring by Joseph Hurt (a descendant of Troup Hurt), and the plaster figures were reset. The building was remodeled and equipped with a 184-seat, tiered viewing platform, which rotated slowly as recorded narrative described the painting. The upstairs museum was also updated, with artifacts given mostly by a former Cyclorama employee. The remodeled Cyclorama opened in June 1982 and remained open in its Grant Park location until 2015.
Following a well-publicized restoration of the Gettysburg cyclorama in 2008, city leaders began to envision a new future for the painting, which had once again fallen into disrepair. In 2014, the city announced the Cyclorama would be relocated to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, as part of a seventy-five-year lease agreement. The Grant Park location closed the following year, and the Battle of Atlanta was transported to the center’s campus in 2017, where it underwent a $35 million renovation. In addition to a new building to house the Cyclorama, conservators restored the painting’s skyline and recreated sections which had been removed to fit into the 1921 structure. A twelve-minute film, projected onto the painting’s surface, details how historical interpretations of the Cyclorama have changed over the years. The new Cyclorama reopened to the public on February 22, 2019—127 years after it first appeared in Atlanta.