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The Famous Cyclorama Of The Great Battle Of Atlanta

July 2024
15min read

There have been few more desperate fights than the one in which John B. Hood vainly tried to block the invasion of the South

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.

Hood at least would fight. That was the big thing about him. He was a tall man with a long blond beard and an odd, sad, hound-dog look in his eyes; an uncomplicated soldier whose duel characteristic was a lurious, driving urge for combat. He was popularly known as “the gallant Hood,” and he lived up to the title in every battle, never knowing the shadow of physical Tear. Early in the war he had made his Texas brigade a combat unit of great fame. Later, as a division commander, he showed fondness for getting up in the front lines, and he got a crippled arm for his pains, at Gettysburg, when he got in the way of a Yankee grapeshot. In the fall of 1863 he had fought furiously at Chickamauga and had lost the greater part of one leg; badly crippled, he rode now strapped to his saddle, never free from the gnawing pain in the imperfectly healed stump of his thigh. He had been corps commander under Johnston during the long retreat down from Tennessee and in letters to Richmond he had voiced his impatience with an army commander who insisted on playing the waiting game. He was not “the gallant Hood” for nothing: to him, war meant unadulterated combat, and he was a man who would vote for a fight at all times.

Now he had his chance. The Confederate Army of Tennessee was given to him, and he understood perfectly that his government expected him to stop retreating and give battle. It suited him, down to the ground. When news of the change in command reached Sherman’s headquarters, old-army men who had known Hood at West Point warned Sherman that he was in for a scrap now.

So as the two armies ranged themselves close in front of Atlanta, the one thing everybody on both sides knew was that there would be no more feinting and jockeying for position. There would be a whale of a big fight, if not several fights, and if the Yankees got any closer to this important railroad and munitions center they would have to pay heavily for it.

As it turned out, there were several fights—Peachtree Creek, the Battle of Atlanta itself, and the Battle of Ezra Church. These three fights, as desperate and at times as costly as any battles which American armies have ever fought, turned out to be oddly indecisive (unless, indeed, they did vindicate foe fohnston’s notion that there was no profit in it, for the Confederate cause, in carrying the fight to the larger Union army). Sherman did not enter Atlanta just then; after the fights he settled clown to something very like a siege, taking advantage of his superior numbers to keep extending his lines to his right, west and south of the beleaguered city, until at last he pulled Hood out of Atlanta and, on September 2, moved in and occupied the place once and for all.

The Battle of Atlanta, immortalized in the Cyclorama, was the second of the three savage fights that took place at the city’s gates. It was indecisive; in a way, both sides lost. Vet the net of the fight was probably a Union victory, for the battle resulted from Hood’s attempt to catch Sherman off guard and hit him so hard that he would have to give up his attempt at conquest and retreat toward the north, and this Hood finally was unable to do. He made his pitch and he failed, and when the three battles had ended Sherman put his larger armv into its trenches within gunshot of Atlanta and alter that it was a question of time.

But the battle itself was a tremendous affair of flame and smoke and bloodshed and death, with the Union cause coming perilously close to shattering defeat at times and with the enlisted men on both sides displaying an amazing heroism and endurance. If Hood made a losing gamble—paid lor, by both sides, with a total of probably more than 14,000 casualties—it was at least a good gamble, and for a time it looked very much like a winning one. And if the great circle of colored canvas in the Cyclorama building is spectacular, compelling and appealing, it is no more than the men of the two armies deserved. They are all gone now, victors and defeated alike, but the memory of what they did and what they went through has been caught and preserved, and it stands now on the walls of a neat building in a pleasant city park, something worth looking at by any American.

When Hood took command on July 17 he took over an army which, in effect, had been driven back into Atlanta itself. The Chattahoochee River, flowing from northeast to southwest, ran barely half a dozen miles away; Sherman had crossed it (a thing which Jefferson Davis believed Johnston should never have permitted), and if the city of Atlanta had had gates, in the old sense, Sherman could be said to be ready to knock on them. Hood called on fohnston. whom he had displaced, and asked what his plans had been; coldly (for he suspected Hood of undercutting him at Richmond) Johnston said that he believed it might be possible to smite the invader to advantage when the invader’s forces tried to get across Peach tree Creek, an inconsiderable stream that meandered east and west a lew miles north of the center of town. Then Johnston went away, and Hood addressed himself to his task.

The rival armies were curiously named. Hood’s Confederate army was the Army of Tennessee, named for the state in which it had originally had its base. Sherman was what would now be called an army group commander; technically he had three armies under his command. The largest was the Army of the Tennessee (Yankee armies were mostly named for rivers) under James B. McPherson. Then there were the Army of the Cumberland under indomitable George Thomas, and the smaller Army of the Ohio, really an army corps, under John Schofield, a chubby little soldier with baldish head, pink cheeks and a remarkably long beard. Thomas was leading the Cumberlands across Peach tree Creek, and on July 20 Hood jumped him.

The result was a savage fight which accomplished nothing. A good many private soldiers on both sides got shot and there was a great deal of sharp in-fighting, but when the dust had settled Thomas had made good his crossing. Hood’s first thrust had failed. He immediately set about devising another, and the great Battle of Atlanta was the result.

Sherman was an admirable strategist but an imperfect tactician—which is to say that he controlled his troops more wisely when maneuvering in open country than he did when they got into close quarters in the heat of battle. Alter Thomas had made good his crossing of Peachtree Creek, Sherman sent his largest unit, McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, swinging around to his left to come in on Atlanta from the east. Doing so, he let his troops get slightly separated and exposed McPherson’s Hank. Hood saw it, and prepared to destroy McPherson’s army; and his attempt to do this constituted the Battle of Atlanta proper, the battle which is depicted in the Cyclorama.

McPherson had got into Decatur, a town just east of Atlanta. Starting in toward Atlanta, his troops ran into Joe Wheeler’s Rebel cavalrymen and drove them away back to Leggett’s Hill, a prominent point on the outer Confederate line. Hood sent in Pat Cleburne’s division—one of his best. Cleburne was Irish, a trained soldier who had put his men through a solid professional course of sprouts—and on fuly 21 Cleburne’s men gave the Federals a stiff fight before the Northerners finally took possession of Leggett’s Hill.

McPherson thus had a lodgment on the Confederates’ outer line. He put Frank Blair’s 17th Army Corps there, and Blair’s men reversed the Confederate trenches to face toward Atlanta. At this point Hood saw his opening, and struck.

The left of McPherson’s line, now drawn up so as to lace, generally, toward the west, was in effect the extreme left of Sherman’s line—a long line, by now, reaching in a crescent a third of the way around the town, its concave side toward the south with the city in the center. This dangerously exposed flank had no cavalry screen to hide it and to give due warning of any danger. It was an ideal target, and Hood saw it.

Around midnight on July 21, Hood pulled all of his troops back from the outer defense lines to the inner ones, some distance to the rear. Simultaneously, he ordered one of his principal subordinates, William Hardee—former commandant at West Point, and author of a notable book on tactics—to take the four divisions of his army corps, perform a fifteen-mile night march to the east, and fall on McPherson’s unprotected left. Wheeler’s cavalry went along, hoping to destroy McPherson’s wagon trains at Decatur; but the big thing was for Hardee to get his corps well to the rear of McPherson’s army and then to attack.

The general idea was sound as a bell, and Hood’s move might very well have stopped Sherman’s Atlanta campaign then and there. Unfortunately, however, Hardee ran into problems. He was moving through what was in effect a heavily wooded wilderness with few roads, he had no adequate maps, and his guides were inefficient. Instead ot being ready to attack at dawn, as Hood had ordered, he was not able to open his fight until noon, and then his men were not exactly where Hood had intended that they should be.

Perhaps the big mistake was in sending Wheeler’s cavalry off to burn McPherson’s wagon trains. The cavalry might have provided the guidance that would have eliminated a lot of guesswork; to destroy a lew Yankee wagons, that dawn of July 22, was not nearly as important as putting the infantry where it could wreck McPherson’s whole army.

In any case, two of Hardee’s divisions, Cleburne’s and Maney’s, somehow took a wrong road, and instead of coming in behind the Federals they ran into the dangling fishhook of entrenchments that Blair’s 17th Corps had occupied the day before. The other two divisions, Walker’s and Bate’s, might have done well to follow Wheeler’s cavalry for a mile or so up the Fayetteville road, beyond the crossing of a little stream known as Sugar Creek; but for some reason the column turned left, skirting the creek, wound its way around a millpond and then ran into a line of Federal pickets, who opened a fire that toppled General Walker out of his saddle. Walker having been replaced by a General Mercer, the two divisions then deployed in the shallow valley of the creek and began to move north in a general northwesterly direction. They were not exactly where Hood had wanted them to be but they were tolerably close to it, and it seemed that they could now go ahead and do what Hood had told them to do.

At which point—it was just a little after noon, on July 22—the advancing Confederates ran into a solid wall of Federal infantry which was not facing Atlanta at all. It was facing toward the south and east—the direction from which Bate’s and Mercer’s men were coming—and it could not have been better placed if McPherson had read Hood’s orders.

McPherson had been taking thought for his exposed left Hank even before he knew about Hood’s move, and that morning he hail sent two brigades down to protect it. These brigades, commanded by a General Sweeney, reached the scene just in time to see Bate’s and Mercer’s battle lines coming up the Sugar Creek valley. They promptly took position to meet this thrust, opened a stiff fire, and—aided by another brigade which had been posted in Blair’s rear—beat off the first onset.

Meanwhile, Hardee’s other two divisions had begun their fight. Cleburne’s and Maney’s divisions drove in hard on Blair’s line and cracked it. One Federal division was swept away and driven north to Leggett’s Hill. A Confederate battle line went swinging forward through a pine woods, coming up behind the Federal brigade which had gone over to help Sweeney’s men. This brigade promptly swung about in its tracks and began a brand-new fight, while Cleburne’s skirmishers went prowling forward through an authentic gap in the Yankee battle line.

McPherson had been eating lunch, some distance away, when the noise of the firing told him that something was coming unstitched along his left and rear. Sending his stall officers oil on various missions, he galloped down toward the end of Blair’s line accompanied by a lone signal officer. Riding along a narrow woods road, he ran smack into CIeburne s skirmishers and was shot from his horse, dead.

… His body was recovered, a little later, and taken to headquarters, where tough Sherman wept unashamedly. Sherman had believed that McPherson was a man of destiny; eventually, Sherman had thought, both he and Grant would be shelved, and McPherson would emerge as the supreme Union commander. Now McPherson was dead, and his army was in danger of destruction.

For Hood was getting more Confederates into the fight. The corps he himself had led before he was promoted into Johnston’s place, a stout-fighting outfit commanded by Benjamin Cheatham, came over from the Atlanta fortifications, and one of its divisions began to pound the Federals who were still clinging desperately to Leggett’s Hill. Simultaneously, Cheatham’s other two divisions extended the fight northward, opening a bitter assault on John Logan’s 15th Corps, astride the Georgia Railroad.

This attack nearly brought Federal disaster. It promptly punched a hole in the line. Two Federal brigades were driven out of their works, the line on their left had to give ground, and a solid mass of Confederates came swarming up to the Atlanta-Decatur road. There was desperate fighting around the white two-story house of the Widow Pope, and around the unfinished brick residence of one George Troup Hurt, where an Illinois battery slammed away at the oncoming ranks in butternut and gray.

The Confederates kept on coming. Five Ohio regiments were driven away from the Hurt house, the Illinois guns were abandoned, and some of Cheatham’s men regained the former Confederate works which the Federals had seized the day before.

But Federal reinforcements were coming up fast. The troops which had been driven out were rallied, and one of the Federal brigades which had been fighting down in Sugar Creek valley came up cross-lots, on the double, to get into the fight. The Confederates became altogether too busy to take away the guns they had captured, and the broken Federal line north of the railroad was at last restored.

The Federal General John Logan on his big black horse was visible in all of this. (Highly visible in the painting, too; he was in politics when it was painted, and there is a legend that the artists gave him prominence to help him capture votes. If that is true, the trick failed; Logan died in December, 1886, before the painting was put on display.)

If Logan was a politican before and after the war he was a solid combat soldier while the war was going on, and he was never more so than he was in this Rattle of Atlanta. When McPherson died Logan succeeded temporarily to command of the Army of the Tennessee, and now he came pounding up on his horse, felt hat clenched in one fist, demanding that his men hold their ground. He was liked by his troops; they had a pet nickname for him, and as he rode along their lines now they chanted it—“Blackjack! Blackjack!”—and dug in their heels to hold on as he had directed.

They were not getting very much help, just here. Sherman himself had formerly commanded the Army of the Tennessee, and he took great pride in it; so much so, it was alleged, that he believed it could fight its own way out of the fix into which Hood’s driving onslaught had put it, and hence refused to send help over from Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, which was not engaged that afternoon of July 22. (Just incidentally, he refused to keep Logan in top command alter the battle, putting one-armed Oliver Otis Howard in the spot.) And the battle came to its enormous climax here, along the railroad cut and near the Hurt house, with the tide inexorably turning and the weary Confederates fighting desperately to hold on.

In the distance there was a wooded hill, with a house where Sherman had his headquarters. Here Sherman watched the battle, McPherson’s lifeless body laid out not far away, a constant swarm of galloping staff officers and couriers forever coming and going with messages and orders; and from here, finally, the Confederate tide could be seen to ebb. The smokefilled afternoon deepened into dusk, and the battle finally tapered off-tapered off sullenly, with Pat CIeburne’s men still fighting with stubborn tenacity on the southern slope of Leggett’s Hill, until at last fresh Federal troops came in to drive them off. Full night came, at last, and the battle was over.

Hood had tailed in what he had tried to do—had failed by an extremely narrow margin, but had definitely Tailed. His men had killed McPherson and they had put McPherson’s whole army in imminent danger of destruction, but in the end McPherson’s men had rallied and held their ground. The casualty rolls were high, especially for the Confederates, who had done the attacking; exact figures are not available, but it is likely that Hood’s army lost, that day, close to 10,000 men, in killed, wounded and missing. The Federals reported their own loss at 3,722, which was probably a very conservative estimate.

After the battle, Hood drew his men back into his lines for another assault, and on July 28 he tried it again. His attack on July 22 may have persuaded Sherman that trying to hold the east-west line of the Georgia Railroad would be too costly, for immediately afterward Sherman moved his Army of the Tennessee in a great half circle, swinging it over to the west side of Atlanta. Hood attacked it there, near a little country meetinghouse known as Ezra Church, and once again the attack killed many men, temporarily gained a little ground, and at last was driven off in defeat. Al’ter that Hood made no further major attacks, and the two armies settled down to the grim business ot a siege, which ended as it was bound to end, early in September, with the capture of Atlanta.

Perhaps Joe Johnston was vindicated, after all. Hood had been called in to do some fighting, and he had done what he was expected to do—and his army had lost, in these fights, substantially more men than the Federals had lost, which was not the kind of mathematics the Confederacy could afford, since the Federal army was much larger to begin with and could command a bigger stream of reinforcements. Atlanta fell, in the end—whether sooner or later than might have been the case if Johnston had stayed in command, no man can tell—and the victory helped provide the stimulus to Northern morale which, that fall, re-elected Lincoln and spelled the final downfall of the Confederacy. From Atlanta, Sherman was to march in smoke and triumph to the sea; and toward the end of the year Hood took his long-suffering army up into Tennessee on a wild, doomed offensive, and saw it finally wrecked by George Thomas in a two-day battle at Nashville.

But the Battle of Atlanta is the big, spectacular set piece that draws the attention. It stands there today, an enormous painting 50 feet high by 400 feet long, running completely around the circular walls of the building that houses it. It is one of the world’s great battle paintings and with its panorama of smoky, flaming violence it commemorates one of America’s great battles, and it is there today to be seen by any American who cares to go and see a graphic re-creation of part of the price that was paid to keep America a single nation.

How the Cyclorama was painted

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