A worker puts some final touches on the diorama that is part of the Atlanta Cyclorama display.Ron Harris / AP

Every city in the South, it seems, is trying to figure out what to do with its monuments. Richmond has kept its grand “Monument Avenue” lined with statues of Confederate luminaries. New Orleans took Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis down from their pedestals. In the city of Atlanta, whose leading Civil War monument is the enormous Atlanta Cyclorama, the strategy is novel: Use history itself to strip a divisive object of its symbolic power.

Cycloramas are panorama paintings designed for exhibition in rotundas. The viewer stands in the middle, cocooned by a canvas that becomes the world. The Atlanta Cyclorama shows the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, a crucial turning point in the Civil War that launched General William Tecumseh Sherman on his infamous march and sealed the South’s fate. Now the center of a major new exhibition at the Atlanta History Center, the Cyclorama measures 49 feet high by 382 feet long and weighs more than 9,000 pounds, making it one of the largest paintings in the United States.

Ever since it premiered in 1886, the Cyclorama has itself been a battleground—a key theater in America’s 150-year fight over how to remember its Civil War. Some exhibitions have cast it as a Union victory; others as a Confederate one. At various moments, Union and Confederate veterans, white and black politicians, civil-rights leaders and segregationists have all tried to claim and control the Cyclorama. Some literally repainted it to promote their memory of the war. For much of the 20th century, the Lost Cause won out, and the Cyclorama served as Atlanta’s Confederate monument. It became part of an effort to uphold white supremacy under the guise of merely commemorating history.

The Cyclorama underscores why we care so much about monuments: not for the past they portray, but for the values they project into the present. “Southern white communities used monuments to preserve their version of the Civil War,” Sheffield Hale, the Atlanta History Center’s director, told me. “A statue of a Confederate general … is not about loss or grief. It is about power.”

When I spoke with Hale and his team of curators at the opening weekend late last month, they were very clear about the goal of the exhibition. They hope to end the Cyclorama’s career as a vessel for Civil War myths—to take away its power without erasing its history.

They have succeeded. The new exhibition transforms the Cyclorama from, as Hale puts it, “attraction to artifact”—from monument to museum piece. It shifts the focus almost entirely from the history depicted in the painting to the history of the painting itself; from the battle that the Cyclorama depicts to the battle over that battle. And in doing so, it shows how we might resolve the long debate over Civil War monuments. Instead of letting the monuments tell our history, we can tell theirs.

Over its 133-year existence, the Cyclorama has proved uniquely pliable as a Civil War memento, perhaps because it was designed that way.

In their 19th-century heyday, cycloramas traveled from city to city, just as fairs or circuses did. They needed to appeal to a wide audience. When the Milwaukee-based American Panorama Company created the Atlanta Cyclorama, it instructed its team (all German immigrants who spoke no English) to paint an ambiguous juncture in the Battle of Atlanta: 4:45 p.m. on July 22, a moment when four Confederate brigades had just broken the Union line and taken control of Union artillery. Minutes later, Union reinforcements led by General John Logan would beat back the Confederates and end the threat. The Cyclorama depicts Logan on horseback, gallantly charging toward the battle. But he wasn’t there yet. The scene is tense, the outcome unresolved. The painters in Wisconsin crafted the Cyclorama to depict an impending Union victory. From another angle, though, the scene could also be interpreted as a Confederate opportunity. This was a moment when the war could have gone the other way.

In 1892, Paul Atkinson, a promoter from Georgia, brought the Cyclorama to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then to Atlanta. Atkinson knew he would need the painting to tell a different story. “This is all right to the son of a federal soldier,” he recalled later in a letter to a friend. “But it don’t sit so well with the son of a Confederate.”

Because the Cyclorama only hinted at the Union victory to come, it didn’t take much to alter the intended meaning. Simply by repainting gray uniforms in blue, Atkinson converted captured Confederate soldiers into Union prisoners. He also added a few tattered American flags, which he showed lying in the dust. “The painting is wonderful,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution when the Cyclorama premiered in Atlanta, because “it is the only one in existence where the Confederates get the best of things.” “The only Confederate victory ever painted,” raved an advertisement. Fake news, 1890s-style.

But fake news can stick. The retouched Cyclorama settled in Atlanta just as white Southerners were embracing the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, a myth in which Confederates fought valiantly to defend the old South’s noble way of life. David Blight, the leading expert on Civil War memory, says that the Cyclorama “clearly became a memorial to the Confederacy, either as a false victory or just as Lost Cause sentiment.” In the next few decades, statues and plaques to the Confederacy rose up all over the South. The Cyclorama, Sheffield Hale said, became Atlanta’s version of such a monument.

Yet Atlanta was also emerging as the cradle of a new, more economically dynamic South, and the Cyclorama was soon caught up in its host city’s identity crisis. In the 1930s, Mayor William Hartsfield, who wanted Atlanta to become “the city too busy to hate,” tried explicitly to decouple the Cyclorama from the Lost Cause. “It must be remembered that this picture is not a shrine or memorial,” Hartsfield said in an interview with the Atlanta Constitution. “It was painted purely for exhibition purposes, not to be worshipped or venerated as a relic.” The mayor commissioned a restoration of the Cyclorama—which included the addition of plaster figurines spread out at the base of the painting, in an attempt to give it a three-dimensional element—and Atkinson’s Union prisoners were restored to their Confederate originals.

Hartsfield’s effort was too little, too late. Or perhaps too little, too soon. In 1939, the film of Margaret Mitchell’s Lost Cause novel, Gone With the Wind, premiered in Atlanta. As part of the festivities, Hartsfield escorted Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh around the Cyclorama. At Gable’s request, a figure of a dying Rhett Butler mysteriously appeared in the Cyclorama’s plaster-model foreground. Attendance spiked—along with passions. Newspaper reports from the 1940s called the Cyclorama “a shrine to the Confederacy,” and recounted multiple people fainting at the base of the painting, overcome with emotion. In 1939, a withered Confederate veteran accidentally bumped into a plaster model of a Union soldier in front of the painting, sized him up, and whacked him with his cane. Hartsfield, sensing the winds, declared the anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta a “memory day.” Atlantans weren’t ready to give up the Lost Cause or their monument to it.

Hartsfield escorts Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland around the Cyclorama (Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center)

Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, worked even harder to wrench the Cyclorama away from the Old South. When Jackson was elected in 1974, the painting had fallen into disrepair. (An ill-advised decision to coat it in buttermilk in 1934—to counteract the original coating of linseed oil—had left behind what one reporter called “a thin layer of cheese.”) White Atlantans, migrating to the suburbs at a breakneck clip, tried to bring the Cyclorama with them by fighting to move it from Atlanta to Stone Mountain, a recently completed mega-monument to the Confederacy. Jackson was having none of it. He made the Cyclorama a priority in the city budget and raised enough to keep it in its home in the downtown neighborhood of Grant Park, by then a racially mixed neighborhood. “Some people say it is ironic that this administration would work to save the Cyclorama,” he said in a pointed public address to mark the reopening. “I see no irony. Suffice it to say: Look at who won the battle.”

Mayor Jackson intervened because he understood the stakes. The Cyclorama had framed the legacy of the Civil War for hundreds of thousands of visitors. How the city chose to exhibit this monument both shaped and reflected how Americans were remembering the war. Nevertheless, attendance plummeted over the years, and with it revenue.  In 2014, after an emergency task force recommended the painting be either moved or put into storage, Mayor Kasim Reed gave the struggling enterprise to the History Center on a 75-year loan.

For Hale, who had served on Reed’s task force and worked for years on the question of how to deal with Confederate monuments all over Georgia, the Cyclorama was the ultimate challenge. Rather than simply hyping the painting, as each previous exhibition of the Cyclorama had done, Hale and his team of curators decided to try something new. “To me, the most interesting thing about the Cyclorama is not the size, the painting, all of that,” Hale told me, “but its journey.”

The History Center’s exhibition focuses on that journey. Before descending into the rotunda to see the Cyclorama itself, audiences pass through a spacious atrium with two wall displays. One contains a high-tech map of Sherman’s Georgia campaign (on which little amoeba-like blobs of blue and gray chase one another around, while a ticker at the bottom counts a steadily rising death toll).

Dwarfing that display is the second wall, which makes no mention of the Cyclorama or the Battle of Atlanta. Instead, a series of small text boxes displays—and then dispels—popular “myths” about the Civil War: “Myth: The nation was healed”; “Myth: The Confederate cause was right.” Gordon Jones, the History Center’s chief military curator, says he wants the wall to be “an ideological tool kit” that viewers can use to understand how people remembered—and misremembered—the history of the Civil War. Hale is more blunt. When we walked through the exhibition together, he pointed at the wall of myths and said, “the Lost Causers aren’t going to like that.”

The painting itself is magnificent, beautifully returned to its original 1880s dimensions. (In 1922, the Cyclorama moved to a building that was too small; the curators lopped off a bunch of sky.) Even to our IMAXed eyes, it looks strikingly huge and all-encompassing. The 1930s diorama figures, too, have been meticulously restored, including Clark Gable. But almost more striking than the painting itself is a 12-minute film that is projected over the canvas.

The film uses historical reenactments to breeze through the history of the Cyclorama. A grizzled Union veteran, viewing the Cyclorama before it traveled South, warns his son that “if the Rebs get their way, they’ll be the heroes we remember.” Right on cue, a thickly accented Paul Atkinson (played by an actor who looks an awful lot like Matthew McConaughey) gleefully paints in the Union prisoners. A Confederate veteran sees the Cyclorama and waxes nostalgic about the Old South, but a black Union veteran follows him and makes clear that slavery was the true cause of the war. In a scene from the 1930s, a young daughter corrects her mother’s Lost Cause mind-set. Mayor Jackson gives his speech. The film ends with a black mother and daughter commenting on the painting today. “A lot of people have mistaken a historical painting for actual history,” the daughter says. “And that’s worth talking about.”

The film is a bit didactic, and its point could hardly be clearer: Memories of the Civil War have less to do with what actually happened than with the politics and prejudices of the people remembering it. The Cyclorama doesn’t show us the history of a battle; it shows us a battle over history.

Just as previous exhibitions of the Cyclorama have reflected their present moments, the new display reflects ours. At a time when the lines between fact and fiction, memory and history, myth and truth seem more and more blurry, the exhibition uses the Cyclorama to give its visitors—who will include every fifth grader in the Atlanta public schools—the tools to discriminate between them. “This is not for some antiquarian interest,” Hale insisted. “We’re trying to use this to make better Atlantans.” At the opening night of the exhibition, he tailored his speech for an audience of prominent Georgia Republicans: Brian Kemp, Georgia’s newly elected, stridently pro-Trump governor, and Senator David Perdue, among others. Hale hoped to spark a conversation with white conservatives who might otherwise excuse Confederate nostalgia as an expression of Southern pride. “The Cyclorama is a prism through which we can refract the current debate about heritage into fact-based history,” he said in his speech.

Ideally, Hale told me later on, this exhibition too will soon appear obsolete. “In 30 years are we going to be teaching about the Lost Cause? Hopefully it will be a surprise that there even was such a thing,” he said, before lapsing into a gardening metaphor: “But I don’t know. I’ve been trying to put Roundup on it for years, and it seems to evade all chemicals. It’s a very hearty weed.”

Jones, the History Center’s military curator, says the monuments debate raging in cities and towns across the South “is perfect timing for us.” He hopes the exhibition will let the painting call upon the past without glorifying it. “I think success in the future would be that when you hear the word Cyclorama in Atlanta, you don’t recoil. You don’t recoil or rejoice,” Jones says. He clarifies: “People should be passionate about this, but they should also think about it. Informed passion.”

What is so important about the Cyclorama exhibition, though, is that it pushes us to view the painting in a purely rational, even dispassionate way. Perhaps this is a useful lesson for other cities around the South grappling with their monuments: Under the glare of historical fact, passion withers. And without passion, monuments lose their power.

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