- Historic Sites
The Famous Cyclorama Of The Great Battle Of Atlanta
There have been few more desperate fights than the one in which John B. Hood vainly tried to block the invasion of the South
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
The Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta is here reproduced, complete and in color, for the first time in any magazine. AMERICAN HERITAGE is indebted to the Department of Parks of the City of Atlanta for its courtesy in granting permission for this publication; to Mayor William B. Hartsfield, to Mr. George I. Simons, general manager of the Department of Parks, and to Mr. C. F. Palmer for their kind assistance; and to Mr. Wilbur G. Kurtz for his expert advice on the battle.
The three great fights for Atlanta, fought in 1864 between the Federal army under General William T. Sherman and the Confederate army under General John B. Hood, took place as shown on ihe map above. The area of the second of these combats, the Battle of Atlanta proper-the battle depicted in the Cyclorama—is shown in yellow.
The Cyclorama itself is a continuous painting, mounted on the inside walls of a circular hall. The five successive segments, reproduced on the following pages, are shown above, disconnected but in proper relationship to each other. Fitted together, they form a continuous panorama as an imaginary observer in the center might have seen it.
The great Battle of Atlanta was a spectacular and destructive fight which proved nothing in particular and which took place largely because the Confederate government in Richmond decided that whoever commanded Rebel troops in Georgia ought to get in and fight.
The government’s attitude is understandable. The month of July, 1864, was drawing toward a close. Ever since May 4, a powerful Union army led by William Tecumseh Sherman, a hard man who believed in making war rough, had been moving irresistibly down into Georgia from Tennessee, striking toward the heart of the South. This army had by no means been having everything its own way; it had had to fight for more than seventy days, it had left dead and wounded men dotting the clearings and thickets all the way north to the Tennessee line, and it had never yet been able to win a clear-cut victory over its Confederate opponent.
Nevertheless, it had never stopped moving. It was in the suburbs of Atlanta shortly after the middle of July, it was more than 100,000 strong, and as far as anybody in Richmond could see it was not likely to stop until it had swallowed Atlanta. Both North and South, there was general awareness that a Federal capture of Atlanta would come close to deciding the war.
The Confederate army opposing Shernian had been commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston—a graybearded, peppery, winsome little soldier who was an exceptionally able strategist but who was perhaps just a little too well aware that it would be extremely dangerous for him to risk an all-out battle against a Federal army which contained some 25,000 more fighting men than his own army contained. To Johnston, the recipe for victory was to fade back, to delay, to evade a decisive encounter—and, in the end, to stall Sherman off until war-weariness might finally persuade the North to quit trying to conquer the South.
With hindsight, it is possible to see that Johnston may have had the correct idea. The Federal government was approaching a presidential election which—in the summer of 1864—Abraham Lincoln, believed that he would lose. To lose that election, as men saw it then, would quite possibly be the same as to lose the war itself. To win it, Lincoln needed a decisive victory that would convince the millions in the North that the winning of the war was in sight. This victory nobody had been able to give him—neither Grant, slugging it out with Lee in front of Richmond, nor Sherman, maneuvering against the canny Johnston. To evade the decisive encounter until some chance of terrain and location provided a clear opportunity for Confederate victory was Johnston’s guiding thought, and from the vantage point of ninety years later it is easy to see that he may have been entirely right.
Wartime governments, however, are not blessed with hindsight, and they cannot appraise their problems from a ninety-years-alter viewpoint. All that Jefferson Davis and his cabinet could see was that Sherman continued to advance into Georgia and that the army which opposed him was not making a stand-up, lastditch fight to stop him. Davis peppered Johnston with letters asking him what he proposed to do. Yet this was of no help, johnston and Davis were bitter personal antagonists, for no reason much more complicated than a basic incompatibility of temperament; and Johnston would reply, with icy courtesy, that he would have to be governed by circumstances and would fight, at last, when he saw a chance to win.
So Davis’ patience finally ran out, and on July 17 he removed Johnston from command and put John B. Hood in his place.