Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Cyclorama: An Atlanta Monument

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Cyclorama: An Atlanta Monument

Article excerpt

I

On May 1, 1886, Jefferson Davis visited Atlanta for the last time. He had agreed to speak at the unveiling of a statue of the late Georgia senator Benjamin Harvey Hill. The former president of the Confederacy looked gaunt and frail. He sat on stage during the ceremony, and one might imagine that the crowd of fifty thousand watched his every fidget. "We hope on that day to hear the real, old fashion rebel yell, having never heard it," wrote the DeKalb Chronicle s editors. "We reckon it will offend no one, but if so, let it offend." And sure enough, when Davis rose, the crowd roared, Yee-Hawl or, perhaps, Yay-Hool Davis gave a short speech praising the late senator, and then the crowd dispersed. (1)

The man who introduced Davis that day was Henry Grady. Grady was Davis's opposite. The chief apostle of the New South movement, Grady was a master of reconciliation. To the North, he preached understanding through commerce; to the South, glory through growth. And though Davis drew the crowd, Grady was master of ceremonies. Davis was seventy-eight, Grady thirty-five. Perhaps this was a final farewell--a moment of transition, Old South to New. But the New South lost Grady too soon. Who could have known that both men would die three years later? Henry Grady outlived Jefferson Davis by seventeen days.

While Davis spoke in Atlanta, thirteen German painters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were putting final touches on the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta. One month later, on June 29,1886, the Cyclorama would premiere in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cycloramas are enormous circular panorama paintings designed for exhibition in large rotundas. The viewer stands in the center, completely surrounded. The canvas of the Atlanta Cyclorama was 49 feet high, 382 feet long, and weighed over 9,000 pounds. It depicts a single moment in the Battle of Atlanta: 4:45 pm on July 22, 1864. From 1886 to 1892, it would travel the nation: Minneapolis, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chattanooga, Baltimore, and then Atlanta, where it remains today. (2)

In 1892, Atlanta was caught in an ideological tug of war. If you believed Henry Grady, the city was a thriving business hub, the North's gateway to the South and, equally, the Souths to the North. It was progressive, forward-thinking, willing to put its past behind and focus on a prosperous future. But if you believed Davis--and the crowd of admirers who cheered him on--Atlanta was far from finished with the Old South. Indeed, Atlantans had just begun reckoning with their city's role in the Civil War. Like the rest of the region, they cushioned bitter memories with nostalgia, a longing for a past that never was and a present that never would be.

The Cyclorama shares Atlanta's ambivalence. Its meaning has proved malleable. It is possible to see a Union rout or a Confederate victory, a narrative of glorious emancipation or of tragic Lost Cause, an appeal for reconciliation or an acknowledgement of division. The Cyclorama reflects either an Atlanta that longed for its past or an Atlanta where even monuments were ahead of their time. The form is unstable, too: the Cyclorama is neither art nor monument nor commercial enterprise--and yet, it has been all three. The painting resists definition.

For that reason, the Cyclorama was, and still is, the perfect Atlanta monument. In the 1890s, a wave of commemoration and nostalgia made the Cyclorama a symbol of a Confederate victory that had never happened, a beacon for the Lost Cause, and a reminder of how Atlanta had almost changed the course of the War and saved the Old South. In the 1930s, Atlanta's boosters and business leaders tried to use the Cyclorama to meld this Lost Cause ideology with a new "Atlanta Spirit" driven by commercial progressivism. What they got was less a melding, more a tacit agreement to disagree: Old and New South began to coexist. It took decades of gradual progress to rupture the dual nature, old and new, of 1930s Atlanta. …

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