Civil War Road Trip

How Robert E. Lee Saved the Union
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 5 2010 3:24 PM

Civil War Road Trip

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Click here to launch a slideshow on a laser light show and a cyclorama.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

The first two days of this Civil War road trip have been dedicated to battlefields. We slip in one more on the morning of the third—Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park—but the Civil War tourist is not limited to contemplative strolls along split-rail fencing. It's time to explore the diversity of options for commemorating this war.

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First, though, we need to make an equipment change—the Toyota is starting to feel a mite cramped. From Chickamauga, we make our way south to Atlanta, where we trade in the Corolla for something with a little more legroom.

The RV.
The RV

For the remainder of the trip, we'll be traveling by RV—which seemed like a better idea before we receive our "How To Drain Your Black Water" tutorial from the Cruise America rental associate; before we attempt our first three-point turn, threatening the structural integrity of a nearby building in the process; before the coach battery dies, taking with it a brigade of Bud Selects we'd stocked in the fridge. But none of this can dampen our spirits. Tonight we are going to Stone Mountain for the laser light show. This is going to be awesome.

Located about 15 miles east of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is a large granite monadnock, into which has been carved a bas relief sculpture of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. (Each sits astride his favorite horse: Traveller, Little Sorrel, and Blackjack, respectively.) * The carving was conceived in 1914 by the leader of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The artist originally hired to complete it was one Gutzon Borglum, but he had artistic differences with his patrons, abandoned the project, and went on to make a name for himself with a modest sculpture in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Stone Mountain's completion was then delayed for decades by war, Depression, and more war. The project wasn't taken up again until the 1950s, thanks to the support of some enthusiastic segregationists.  

The sculpture was finally dedicated in 1970. Today, Stone Mountain is a state park and home to a wide array of attractions, including Journey to the Center of the Eartha "4D" movie experience starring Brendan Fraser—a glassblowing shop, and several restaurants. We opt for the Southern cooking at Miss Katie's, where the house rule is that you can't have a buttered roll unless you can catch one that's been lobbed at you from a not insignificant distance by the waitstaff. This is sort of a fun rule and sort of a gross rule.

We wash the butter off our hands and depart Miss Katie's just as night is falling. A large crowd has formed on the lawn beneath the sculpture, and a booming voice is welcoming visitors and thanking a group of corporate sponsors. The show begins. It's every bit as strange as I'd hoped it would be.

The program opens with the lasers rendering the names and mascots of the local Atlanta sports franchises on the granite rock face while a medley of dance hits from the 1990s booms from the park speakers. I am currently looking at a laser light rendering of the Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders shaking their booties to C&C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)." Recall that this is happening on and around Robert E. Lee's face.

The sports montage gives way to a more sedate homage to Southern living, scored with "Georgia on my Mind" and Buddy Jewel's "Sweet Southern Comfort." The lasers depict ole swimmin' holes, farmers on tractors, magnolias in bloom. The pace picks up again with the all-too-familiar strains of "Sweet Home Alabama," which accompany a laser-lit paean to various attractions in that neighboring state—the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, the USS Alabama in Mobile. As the boys of Lynyrd Skynyrd tell Neil Young what they think of his take on the Southern man, a cartoon rendering of the Bard—representing the Alabama Shakespeare Festival—pantomimes a soliloquy.

I'm beginning to wonder whether the light show might completely ignore Stone Mountain's Confederate triumvirate when the lights dim and a military tattoo rat-a-tat-tats from the speakers. It's Elvis' haunting "American Trilogy." After a moment of darkness, the lasers return, animating the carvings of Lee, Jackson, Davis, and their steeds. The figures take off at a gallop, Lee and Jackson raising their sabers as they charge. Images of Civil War battle appear—cannons firing, Atlanta burning, rows of graves marking the innumerable dead. None of this escapes the watchful eye of Lee, who is now the sole figure depicted on the granite. He spurs Traveller on, but at a slow, somber pace. He dismounts, raises his saber … and breaks it over his knee, Bo Jackson-style. The saber shatters, its shards falling slowly to the ground. He is defeated.

No, wait! As the shards rotate in flight, they're revealed to be in the shape of the Northern and Southern nations. And now they're miraculously fusing back together to form the map of a reconstituted United States. Were it not for Lee's magnanimous act, the two sides might never have reconciled. Robert E. Lee has saved the Union!

On to the next segment: Laser jellyfish dancing to feel-good techno. Somewhere in this well-manicured park, a shrooming teenager is having the night of his life.

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***

The next morning we pay a visit to the Atlanta Cyclorama, in the city's Grant Park. (It is named, needless to say, for Lemuel P., not Ulysses S.) Cycloramas—massive, panoramic paintings displayed in circular galleries—were the IMAX experience of the 1880s. Civil War battles were popular subject matter; two of the surviving cycloramas, of which there are only a handful, depict Civil War engagements. The Atlanta Cyclorama tells the story of the Battle of Atlanta, fought on July 22, 1864. A docent informs us that at 42 feet tall and 300 feet long, this is the largest oil painting in the world, requiring 11 artists, 22 months, and 12,000 gallons of paint to complete.

We enter the room that houses the painting and park ourselves in stadium-style seating. As the program commences, the stands begin a slow rotation, and a recording narrates the battle's major events and directs our attention to points of interest on the painting. There's a fun, Where's Waldo-ish appeal to this: Can you find William Tecumseh Sherman, observing the action from his headquarters? Do you see the ambulance carrying the mortally wounded body of Union Gen. James McPherson?   Now see if you can spot a Union soldier who has stopped to share some water with a fallen Confederate.  

Already on this road trip we've encountered dioramas, interactive maps, video re-enactments, infographics, and all manner of plaques, placards, and interpretive signage. But for conveying the thrust and parry of Civil War battle—and its chaos—nothing has been quite so affecting as this 123-year-old painting. Regiments are charging here, falling back there. The dead and wounded lie in piles along the lines of engagement. Horses bolt in fear or are shot out from under their riders. Civilian homes become ideal perches for snipers—and targets for artillery. A rickety cabin is pressed into service as a field hospital. Clouds of gun smoke float menacingly just above the fray. The painters took some liberties with the facts on the ground—Union Gen. John Logan, who supposedly commissioned the painting to buoy his (unsuccessful) 1884 vice-presidential run, is depicted waving his hat gallantly as he leads his men into a charge, which I'm sure is exactly how it happened—but they also made site visits, spoke to veterans of the battle, and ultimately produced a powerful rendering of the glory and terror of war.

If you visit:

Clarification, Oct. 18, 2010: This series originally spelled the name of Gen. Lee's horse "Traveler." While that spelling appears in some records, the more common spelling is "Traveller." (Return to the revised sentence.)

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