A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part four)

Gordon Jones hardhat

Dr. Gordon Jones

(part four of four)

We’ve been touring this week the new Atlanta cyclorama building at the Atlanta History Center—a state-of-the-art complex built specifically to showcase The Battle of Atlanta, a painting that depicts the July 22, 1864, Confederate breakthrough during the battle of Atlanta and the Federal counterattack to stem the tide. Our guide has been Dr. Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator for the museum.

At 42 feet high and 358 feet long, the Atlanta cyclorama is the largest in the country—although, arguably, not the most famous. That distinction would probably go to the Gettysburg cyclorama, which was installed in a custom-made home of its own in 2008.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: Is there a friendly rivalry with Gettysburg or do you guys work with them to learn from them? 

GORDON JONES: It’s basically that. They played a huge role in getting this done. Two things kind of came together. One: in Grant Park, attendance was declining. There was no money left for maintenance. It was a hand-to-mouth operation. So as attendance declined, there was nothing to maintain the painting, and it was starting to need some help. It had been thirty-five years since its last restoration. And at the same time, in the mid-2000s, Gettysburg was doing their cyclorama restoration. I was up there as part of the Museum Advisory Committee, and I got to see this going on.

So we started thinking about this here in Atlanta and, right around the time they finished theirs, our then-director started seriously thinking about it, and we went to our architect and we said, “Hey, man, can you do a little scratch drawing and see if we can fit this thing on our property somewhere?” And one thing led to another.

And then, the mayor, realizing the painting was headed in a downward spiral, called for an advisory committee and a task force to study what to do with it, partly at the urging of some of us. This was one of the recommended places. Here, or taking it downtown—it was whoever had the money. So we had a set of donors that came out of the woodwork that we had never met before and that we didn’t know. They read about it in the newspaper and said, “We’d like to make a legacy gift. We really want to save the Cyclorama. Here, have ten million dollars.” So with that, we were able to leverage the rest of the money and, at that point, it was just a matter of lining up the deal.

The Atlanta Zoo was able to take up the old building at Grant Park, and we were able to refurbish the painting so that it’s not left as derelict. The 1921 building is saved, the painting is saved, and we did it all with private money.

The city has leased this and [the locomotive] the Texas to us for seventy-five years, so in essence, it’s a win-win for everybody involved. We saved the building, we saved the painting, we saved the locomotive. It’s in a viable place now, it’s supported by an endowment, and it’s no longer hand-to-mouth. If nobody ever comes in to this painting as a paying customer ever again, it won’t matter because we have the money to maintain it anyway.

C.M.: So how much did the building cost?

G.J.: We’re not finished with that yet, but we’re going to say we have approximately a thirty-million dollar project, ten million of which is an endowment.

C.M.: What have I not asked about this project yet that I should know? I assume you get a lot of interest in people asking when is this going to be ready and that type of stuff.

G.J.: I think the main thing I’m trying to get across to people is just how many stories this thing can tell. It is the battle of Atlanta, but it’s more than that. It’s all about the memory of the Civil War, and the science of these things, and the artists of these things, and the Germans—the guys who came over here and made it big.

George Peter, the horse painter, stays over here and becomes sort of famous in his own right. He ends up doing all the background murals in the Natural History Museum in Milwaukee. And some of these other guys turn out to be Western artists, famous Wisconsin artists, at least. A lot of times they didn’t want to highlight the fact that they came over here to paint panoramas because that was like a low art form since it was popular.

But there are so many good stories, and I think the problem with this painting is that it has been associated too much with the battle of Atlanta and therefore with Confederacy, and in this town, it was a political football for a while and it doesn’t need to be.

A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part three)

Gordon Jones and Jackson Mackowski

Gordon Jones (r) and Jackson Mackowski (l)

(part three of four)

We continue today our behind-the-scenes tour of the Atlanta cyclorama at the Atlanta History Center’s Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. Our guide is Dr. Gordon Jones, chief military historian and curator for the museum. In yesterday’s segment, he explained how the restoration of the painting got underway.

“The next step is going to be the part that everybody was thinking we’re doing now, which is the whole cleaning and painting,” he said. “We’ve spent about two years on this project, and that is going to be the last thing we do.”

To get to that point has required tons—literally—of work, including removing the cyclorama from its former home in Grant Park. That also meant “getting all the artifacts out, getting the diorama out, getting the diorama figures out.” 

GORDON JONES: Did you see the painting when it was over there?

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I did not.

G.J.: Okay, the little plaster figures from the 1930’s—again Wilbur Kurtz’s [restoration artist from the 1930s]—all of those had to be taken out and crated. And then we had to cut up the surface of the diorama. In the 80s, they had to replace the dirt with fiberglass, which, from a health standpoint, is just as bad. So we had to get rid of all that.

So, just to get to the point where we can raise a scaffold on the face of this painting and get to the top rail, to actually physically measure it—we knew approximately what it was, and we were building the building to allow for that—but to actually get a proper measurement, we couldn’t do it until about February of 2016. And we had started this project in July of 2015.

And then, it took another year after that to attach the strip-lining to the bottom and the top, to have the spools made, and to have it scrolled onto two spools, lifted and craned out of the top of the building through two holes, and craned into this building. That was in February of 2017. So only now are you getting to the point of doing the restoration.

C.M.: Just the sheer size of it is a logistical issue.

G.J.: Hence the reason that the cyclorama fad was so short-lived. [They were popular in the 1880s.] This was virtual reality of its time, but imagine the overhead. You had to build these buildings that all had to be alike, all the same size, so you could interchange the paintings from buildings, But the expense—holy crap. You’re spending six- or eight-thousand dollars on the building. By some accounts, this painting was forty-thousand dollars to make. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you have to have an awful lot of ticket sales. And after a while, the market is saturated and everyone’s tired of it. They’re ready to see other stuff.

So the fact that this one survives at all is really due to the fact that it was enshrined in Atlanta. It ended up in Atlanta, and the city decided to make it an icon of its history—an icon of the Confederate Lost Cause. That’s why it survived. Whether we like that or not, that’s why it survived. Now, we have to interpret it more fully to show all these different nuances.

C.M.: What do you think some of the coolest parts of the painting are?

G.J.: Right here. The breakthrough at the Troup Hurt house, and ever here there’s “Blackjack” Logan and then behind him, Captain Degress, racing with his batteries, to push forward the counter-attack. It’s that ‘cusp moment’ when everything’s in the balance. To me, part of the brilliance of this painting is that the artist chose that cusp moment, because if you want a heroic victory, then you don’t go for the 42-to-nothing ballgame, you go for the one that ends at the last minute with the extra point—so this is what he did.

Also, I think the artistry on this stuff is fantastic if you look, particularly at the horses. Here they’re slaughtering the battery horses, or the battery horses have been slaughtered to prevent the Confederates from carrying them off, but they’ve also chosen to show that process continuing. There were two horse painters, but I think this is by George Peter. Well, there were really about twenty different artists, but about ten were the top dogs; George Peter was one of them. He’s chosen to put these horses in their moment of agony, so it looks really disheartening to see that, and what he did was he went down to the glue factory and went to the slaughterhouse and he sketched the horses as they were being killed.

So you see this brilliantly rendered stuff and if you look over here—I love that explosion because it looks so 3-D coming at you.

Here, you see this captain on his horse. He’s looking backwards; you see the expression on him and you see the two horses there—wonderfully rendered horses. But then, look at Captain Jonas’s horse and—then this is August Mercy and, look, his horse—and they’re flat, they’re crap. Those are ones that have been retouched in 1898, 1909, 1922, and 1936. It was retouched because it suffered damage, particularly in the old building, before it came to Grant Park. So, you can tell what’s not done by the original artists.

So the question is then what do you do with that in terms of restoration. That’s an aesthetic choice. You want to be honest to the painting, but it’s also an aesthetic thing, where you want to honor the original artist—so that’s one of the decisions to make.

Sherman is up there: you can see him outlined in smoke. This is supposed to be Manning Force’s ambulance going up to headquarters. McPherson’s body is supposed to be in that ambulance right there that you can see in the trees.

And then you come back to the back of the painting, this is the Georgia railroad and Stone Mountain. You can see the Georgia railroad continuing straight over there, and that’s Atlanta. You’re right on the railroad cut. And some debate over how close the Troup Hurt house was to the railroad, and everybody says that this is awfully close. Well, it was, and one of the reasons it’s close is because we’re missing about four feet of painting right there! [See part two of the series for an explanation.] So that would be part of it, but it’s not all—only part of it.

And then you can see the Union forces coming up, and you can see the Confederate prisoners being taken back. That was a point of controversy when the painting came down south. Those soldiers were repainted as fleeing Yankees, because why would southern audiences want to see their compatriots being towed off as prisoners? Kurtz, to his credit, put them back. Now I know that’s the case with these guys down by the tree, but I don’t know if that’s the case with some of the others, where you see other sets of prisoners being led off. There are three sets of prisoners.

C.M.: I notice there’s a single bird over here.

G.J.: Ah, yes. Old Abe, the war eagle—the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin regiment. The 8th Wisconsin was not only not here, but Old Abe was not allowed to be removed from his perch, lest he should fly away—but no matter because the 8th Wisconsin was very famous and Old Abe was very famous in Wisconsin. When this painting was made, Old Abe had just died. I think he died in ’81. He was stuffed and preserved in the State House, so he was kind of the symbol of Wisconsin. So, here these German guys new to Wisconsin, painting this painting, decided to put a little nod to the old hometown, so they put Old Abe up there.

Another reason this is a great American treasure, the symbol of the 101st Airborne Division is an eagle. That’s Old Abe because those guys were formed up there, so in the first World War, when they were looking for a symbol for their patch—Wisconsin—their symbol is an eagle.

CM: I see the post-it notes on the canvas. Is that for aligning lights as you guys work?

GJ: That’s actually for the horizon, because the horizon eye needs to be at about the human eyeball level in order for the illusion to be right for you. So when the painting is finally attached to the upper rail, it’ll be up about two inches. Now all the stuff above you [he points to the support structures and scaffolding that hold the lights and the painting], that’ll be covered up with a cloth canopy so it’ll give the appearance that there’s nothing there but sky, and then of course the floor will be a diorama, so you won’t be able to see that either.

This platform we’re on will be outfitted to have a 19th century feel to it: faux-wood floors, iron posts, and covering up as much as we can to give the feel—and everyone knows it’s a modern space, but to give the feel of that century. You will also be able to go underneath the platform, and there will be exhibits down there too, and that’s different than Gettysburg. They couldn’t do it at the Gettysburg building. We figured out we could do it here, so why not have a little bit more space?

————

“Is there a friendly rivalry with Gettysburg?” I ask Gordon in tomorrow’s conclusion. His answer may surprise you.

A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part two)

Atlanta Cyclorama observation deck(part two of four)

Back in June, I had the privilege to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the new cyclorama facility at the Atlanta History Center. This week, I’m glad to finally share my adventure with you.

In yesterday’s segment, the museum’s senior military historian and curator, Dr. Gordon Jones, brought me inside the center of the exhibition room, with the painting hanging on full display. It was absolutely breathtaking to stand in the middle of this immense work of art. 

“The lighting package, we just fired it up last week,” Gordon told me. “It makes a huge difference on how the painting looks, and you can not only see the artistry, but you can also see the mistakes.” We laughed.

Gordon led us across the room to the skeleton of an observation deck that stood in the middle of the room. We climbed the stairs to the platform for a good look at the painting as he talked about it. With his permission, I recorded Gordon’s tour—which I’ve lightly edited for clarity—and my son, Jackson, started grabbing pictures. I’ll let Gordon do the talking:

Chalk marks on the canvas help guide the conservationists in their restoration.

GORDON JONES: Where we are now with this project is our conservation team, German and American, are now working on the painting. We hired a German team because that’s where the experience was with moving these things. There’s not the experience over here. Even at Gettysburg, they had to hire someone from Poland to help them out because that’s where the experience was.

So what the conservationists have been doing up to this point, really, is a lot more engineering than anything else, but right now they’re adding to the sky. You can see we have lost, over the years before it ever came to Grant Park, about seven feet of sky, which was incrementally cut off every time the painting moved. It was moved several times.

Also, you had losses at the bottom of the painting for various reasons, but one big reason was because, in that building in Grant Park, there was actually no floor. You actually just had a dirt floor, so the painting went into the floor and there was dirt piled up on it to look like the dioramas that were along the base of painting. That resulted in a lot of deterioration and mold, so some of this was cut off.

Then, we have a section that was actually cut as an escape hatch in the 1930’s. There’s supposed to be a wagon that goes over that. You can see the wheel there.

But the more significant thing that you can see over here: this is the high point of the painting, the breakthrough and the trooper pass. That’s the Confederate victory and then right next to it, you see the Union victory. So it depends on whether you like your glass half full or half empty. “Well I like the attack.” “Well I like the counter attack.” But when the painting was being put into the building in 1921, it was cut at this seam. They ended up not measuring the building properly. Realizing that the painting was a little bit too big, they said, “Why don’t we just cut some out.” So that part was missing.

So Wilbur Kurtz, when he did his restoration in the 30’s—this was about the same time he was working on the Texas [the museum’s other centerpiece exhibit, the steam engine involved in the Great Locomotive Chase]—he came in and did some doctoring and he added some figures right here because there were not enough Confederate defenders, because the Confederate defenders were cut out. And I get it. So we wanted to leave those figures, and you can see them, these guys are up here. They’re shooting, and those are Wilbur Kurtz’s figures. So we wanted to leave those because, to me, that’s part of the story of the painting.

So we’re going to go ahead and do the restoration. We have the 1886 photograph, so we know what this actually should look like.

There’s also a loss on the other side, where we came in, which was the entrance tunnel in the main seam [on almost the exact opposite side of the painting]. That’s where the painting was always cut and it was always scrolled when it was moved, which we did when it came here. And so incrementally, it lost some over here, and there’s also some loss over there, as well, and that’s also being put back in.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: So why did they choose to cut out a section right here at the ultimate scene, as opposed to maybe just trimming out something else?

G.J.: See, up until just about May [2017], I thought that’s exactly what it was and was telling everybody that’s what it was: our four feet that we’re missing is over there. Because when I saw that, I assumed that they were smart enough, they cut it at the main seam. But our conservationist team looked at it and said, “I don’t think so. Really what you’re seeing over there is a lot of overpaint. The big loss occurs right here.” [“Over there” is near the seam where we entered; “right here” is the climactic scene altered by Kurtz.]

And I went back and looked at a photograph I had from the newspaper, but it was microfilm, so it’s black. So I start playing with the contrast. I finally got the contrast right, and I finally figured out that I could actually see one of the figures way over here, and I said, “That’s that figure. That’s on the other side of the painting. By God, they did cut it right here!” Now why they did that, I don’t know. By that point—this is 1921—there’s nobody around that knows these things anymore. The artists are all gone. Nobody knows anything. The contractor, he’s the lowest bidder for the city—quite literally, he’s the lowest bidder. He says, “I’ll just move the painting.”

C.M.: And the painting had been on the road for quite a while before it finally came to Atlanta, wasn’t it?

G.J.: It was in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, went bankrupt, came to Chattanooga, and then came to Atlanta. There was a duplicate that was displayed in Detroit and in Baltimore. The duplicate is lost. Most of the other ones are lost. There were probably forty or fifty of these paintings during the heyday. There were crucifixion scenes, there were battle scenes, there’s a Chicago fire, there’s a Bunker Hill, there’s a Custer’s last stand where he was shot, there was Vicksburg, second Manassas, the Monitor and the Merrimack, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga—there are actually four copies by two different artists of that one—and then by far the most popular, there’s Gettysburg.

For Gettysburg, there were at least four “original” copies by Paul Philippoteaux, and then probably five or ten others that were knockoffs that were made and circulating, so there’s probably as many Gettysburgs as there are of all the others combined.

My theory is that the Eastern Theater guys had their Gettysburg. It was their great shining moment where open-field combat turned the tide. That was their big Civil War monument in paint, so there was a lot of interest in that in the Northeast, and three of the four Gettysburg paintings premier in Eastern cities. In the Midwest, most of the guys are Western theater guys, so they want to see something they were in, so therefore you get Shiloh, Vicksburg, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. Those are the four great Union victories in the West, and each one of them got a painting, and in two of the four, they got multiple copies. These ones premier in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, they play out west. So my theory is that there is no single Western equivalent to Gettysburg, but there are these other battles and they all got paintings.

Now the anomaly is Second Manassas. How’d that happen—that’s a Confederate victory? That’s displayed in Washington, D.C., and as far as I know, there’s only one copy, and I don’t know where else it went besides Washington. It did have Lee and Jackson and it did have some prominence to the Confederate officers in there. My thought is that Washington is trying to attract from both areas.

Then you have this Monitor and the Merrimack thing, and it’s definitely a one-off. It is a kind of Northern perspective because what you see is the battle is going on out there in the river and then, on the shoreline, you see the Federal officers watching it, so you see Sumner, and I think you can count that one as being from a Northern perspective. So really, all but one are painted from a Northern perspective, because that’s where the audiences are, that’s where the big cities are.

And when Atkinson, the promoter, brought this one to Chattanooga and Atlanta, the fad was over in the North, so he brought it down here and he’s taken a chance. It’s kinda like movie theaters in the 30’s. He’s taking a chance by selling it down here because there aren’t as many people. Furthermore, they’re going to be hostile towards a Union victory, so he’s got to be really careful about how he advertises it. That’s why he advertises it as a Confederate victory, but his operation went bust for the same reason it did in the North, only it didn’t take as long. Up there, they could play for two years before they went bankrupt, but down here it was nine months.

Anyway, that’s my theory, whether that’s true or not.

————

Tomorrow, as our tour continues, Gordon will talk about about the painting’s history in the city, and he’ll point out some of his favorite details in the painting itself.

A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part one)

Atlanta History Center

The Atlanta History Center

(part one of four)

While I had many great Civil War-related adventures in 2017, the highlight probably came in June when Dr. Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center, treated me to a behind-the-scenes tour of their new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. The new facility, scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, will house the fully restored Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting—the largest in America, measuring 42 feet high and 358 feet long. The building, at 23,000 square feet, was specifically built to house the painting, which formerly hung in Grant Park, where it had been on display since 1921. 

 

The Battle of Atlanta depicts the Confederate breakthrough on July 22, 1864, and the Federal counterattack that stemmed the tide. It was one of two identical copies painted in 1886 by the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee. A team of more than twenty painters—Germans and Austrians hired to come to the U.S—worked on the project.

Gordon and I and my son Jackson donned hardhats before we walked into the main gallery, which felt like the interior of a missile silo: vast, cylindrical, concrete. We came into the space behind the painting and circled around toward a gap in the canvas, with the smooth cement wall on our left and the back of the painting on our right.

“The biggest problem we had with this thing was the old building, which was too small for the painting,” Gordon explained as we walked, “so it was absolutely impossible to walk behind the painting. It was also impossible to get scaffolding behind the painting.” We passed a tall scaffold cozied up the back of the canvas, giving restoration engineers access to a high-up part of the painting, although from the back, I couldn’t tell what it was.

 

Gordon pointed out a system of weights and aluminum poles along the bottom of the painting that helped keep the canvas stretched. “It was also, most importantly, impossible to have the painting come out to its full circumference at the bottom,” Gordon said of the cramped space at Grant Park. The canvas has a shorter circumference along its center than it does on the top and bottom, meaning that it bows in the middle. The resulting parabolic shape helps create a 3-D effect for people standing in the middle.

“It’s already starting to get its shape back,” Gordon said, “which is the hyperbolic shape whereby the top edge and the bottom edge are further away from the platform than the middle, so it essentially bows out so that the area of the painting just above the horizon is actually closer to the eye, if you’re looking from the observation platform. So, literally there was no space for that to happen in the old building. Now, we built the building big enough.

Atlanta Scaffolding

“So not only can you see the scaffold back here and work on the painting from now until eternity,” he continued, “but now you can also you can also bring a school group back here and show them what’s going on, and that ties into all their STEM requirements [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math]. There’s engineering and math in how they do this and how they rig it. There’s a cool story, just walking back here. And I think also when people come into this visitor experience, we’ll include being able to see the back of the painting.”

“Oh that’s neat,” I remarked, “because they don’t do that at Gettysburg.”

“The other thing we’re going to skip that they did at Gettysburg was the timed tour,” Gordon added. “So this will be one of those where there will be some kind of sound and light presentation, but you will not have to exit once it’s over. You can spend as much time in here as you want.”

And with that, he led us through the gap in the canvas into the interior of the main exhibition space. The “reveal” stopped me in my tracks.

“Holy cow. This is just amazing.”

I had my recorder going for the tour, so for the next segment of our series, I’ll just let it roll and let Gordon do the talking. Jackson, meanwhile, grabbed photos as we talked, so I’ll share more of those, too.

Join us tomorrow as we take a closer look at the Atlanta cyclorama!

Turning Points: Gone With The Wind

December 15, 1939, marked a turning in interpretation and image of the American Civil War. Perhaps one could argue that the turning point had started earlier in 1936 when the novel that inspired the movie hit shelves across the nation, beginning a tidal wave that would eventually envelop the globe. That December night in Atlanta, thousands of people lined the streets and hundreds packed into the theater. As the movie’s title – Gone With The Wind – scrolled slowly across the screen against a background of a vivid Technicolor sunset, the moment had come when a story came to life and challenged the historiography of the Civil War.

This is an arguable turning point. It did not occur during the 1860’s. It was not a literal battle. It was not even pretending to be a comprehensive look at the conflict. However, Gone With The Wind influenced the way domestic and international societies view the American 1860’s, staged a battle of ideology and interpretation, and evolved into an education on the war and reconstruction. With epic influence, this movie managed to captivate audiences with its entertainment factors and teach them a one-sided so-called history lesson that continues to haunt many today.

“Gone With The Wind” movie poster (Public Domain)

As entertainment, Gone With The Wind, deserved many of its accolades. It was the Star Wars of its day – if that comparison is permissible – with crowds lining up around the block to get tickets. This movie drew millions to the theaters during the Great Depression era and showed them struggle, grit, and a vow that “tomorrow is another day.” Filmed in Technicolor on lavish sets, the motion picture thrilled the audiences. As Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara) flirted on the screen, she represented the capstone of a national “search for Scarlet” that had consumed the entertainment world and fan magazines for months prior to filming. Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Wilkes), and Hattie McDaniels (Mammy) starred impressively in 1930’s filmmaking. Epically, Gone With The Wind grossed millions at the box offices, leaving many people delighted with the adaption of a novel that some had called The American Classic.

At the center of The Wind storm lived the author, the instigator: Margaret Mitchell. She liked to portray herself to the media as an Atlanta housewife who wrote a book in her spare time. However, she took writing more seriously than that, having worked for a local newspaper in Atlanta for several years, gaining popularity as a journalist before troublesome health forced her to live more secluded. Mitchell researched extensively in the Atlanta archives and remembered her youthful conversations with Confederate veterans and former Southern belles; she liked to emphasize that her story was accurate. Parts of it are. Other parts do not match further historical research. Clearly, Mitchell researched and wrote from a strictly Southern perspective, drawing on tradition and heritage for inspiration, too. The book includes painfully racist remarks (which were omitted or toned down for the movie version) and an incredibly sympathetic view of the Confederacy and the Southern situation during the Reconstruction Era, leading modern readers to wonder where the boundary lines lie in historical accuracy in fiction.

Whether the skewed perspective was intentional or not, Mitchell’s book of romance and strictly Southern interpretations became widely popular. Her publisher launched one of the largest national publicity campaigns, and book clubs, reporters, and other market and consumer influencers approved the book, pushing concerned or dissenting voices to the sidelines. When Hollywood entered the scene, director David O. Selznick reimagined the story – reducing the political and ethnic situations in the book – and created a “simpler” romantic story set during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind”

On the surface, it is easy to imagine that Gone With The Wind is just a story set during the 1860’s. However, the passing decades have shown the movie’s reinforcement and creation of myths about the Civil War. The ideas of happy plantations, contented slaves, flirtatious belles, and “cavaliers” play out in the movie, underscored by a large dose of Lost Causism. Ironically, Scarlett herself hates the war and Lost Causism, creating a strange conflict between what the book and movie actually present and what fans take away.

Because of the multiple Academy Awards, staring cast, and a plot that resonated well with people across the world, Gone With The Wind became the unofficial public history education source for many on the topic. As the drama played over and over on television and home entertainment, its grip on the mind strengthened. Clearly, with its one-sided portrayal, this interpretation of the Civil War did not qualify as balanced information, but in many circumstance, the entertainment value routed accuracy. Interestingly, in many foreign countries, Gone With The Wind is seen as American history – something beautiful, romantic, and charming. That veneer masks the other side of the story, the part that for decades was neatly kept hidden away: the horrors of slavery, the abuse of women, the positive efforts during The Reconstruction, just to name a few. The truth – as usual – tends to be found between the two extremes of the story and the dark side of history.

Gone With The Wind built an empire of a story that has wriggled its way into many topics related to the Civil War – battles, clothing, women’s studies, Black history, Southern image, Lost Causism, medical studies, blockade running, Reconstruction, and economics. This presents a double-edged sword for historians and educators and recognizing the threat and opportunity is crucial.

The famous Civil War movie threatens a clear understanding of the war because of its perspective and interpretation. Unfortunately, through the generations, many viewers accepted the film as relatively accurate, propagating many misconceptions about the conflict and mid-19th Century Southern society. Historians must delve into the book and the movie to be able to understand the perspective, be able to explain the ideology behind the plot, and be willing to discuss what other research has revealed, countering the myths.

On the other hand, historians and educators may find it useful to utilize the movie’s influence as a way to engage. Without endorsing the featured Lost Causism and suspect history, it can be used as starting point for a discussion. For example, I have had many foreigners approach during living history events and want to know if I am “a Southern belle like Scarlett” – rather than scolding, it has been useful to realize that their knowledge of Civil War women comes from that movie and then provide accurate (primary source based) information about the experiences of women during the war. I have also found that people don’t always know what blockade runners are, but if I mention Rhett Butler, Paris, and the green bonnet, it gives a little connection and then I can explain the historical details to an interested audience.

Gone With The Wind’s premiere in 1939 represents a turning point in how America and the world envisioned the Civil War. Some of it is accurate, other parts leave much to be desired in historical details. As historians, educators, or history enthusiasts, it is important to recognize the impact this movie has had, acknowledge the historical and ideological problems, and realize that the film’s influence can be used to teach accurate history to an audience who is obsessed with Scarlett’s version of “War, war, war!”


Harry Turtledove, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the Beatles

Fort Pillow-coverYou’ve got Turtledove’s Fort Pillow (2006)? Turn to page 140, and a Tennessee cavalryman cries, “Get back, Jojo!”

…which has led me over these years to wonder if the esteemed author sprinkles a Beatles lyrics line into his other novels—alternative fiction, science fiction, or otherwise.

What do you think?