Historic Atlanta: From Civil War to Civil Rights

Teach your kids, and yourself, about Atlanta’s role in American history, as well as in the classic film “Gone With the Wind.”

After ordering his troops to destroy Atlanta in 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman sat on a hill and watched the entire city burn. Today, Sherman’s hill is the site of the Jimmy Carter Center—the offices of the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Little wonder that the city of Atlanta’s symbol is the phoenix—the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes—and its motto is Resurgens, Latin for “rising again.”

Unlike other cities with historic preservation districts, Atlanta has little architecture dating back even 100 years. The city was destroyed a second time by the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 and continually rebuilds itself.

But that doesn’t mean Atlanta has forgotten its past, and there are plenty of historic sites to see on your Atlanta vacation.

A Basic History

A good introduction to the area’s roots is the Atlanta History Center. The permanent collections include one of the largest Civil War exhibits in the country and the Centennial Olympic Games Museum. Added attractions include child favorites Tullie Smith Farm, an 1840s plantation-style venue, and Swan House, which depicts urban Atlanta life in the 1930s.

Civil War Sites

There are few signs marking the Battle of Atlanta. However, several sites from the Atlanta campaign are preserved in the surrounding area. The largest is the 3,000-acre Kennesaw Mountain National Park, which features historic breastworks and cannon emplacements. Another is Pickett’s Mill Battlefield, one of the best preserved sites in the country.

For a unique depiction of the 1864 campaign, visit the Atlanta Cyclorama and Museum—the longest-running show in the United States. It features the largest oil painting in the world, on display since 1883. Miniature figures in the foreground, music and narration enhance the painting through a theater-in-the-round experience.

The Cyclorama is also home to the locomotive called The Texas, one of two trains participating in “The Great Locomotive Chase.” After Union spies stole The General in 1862 while its crew was having breakfast in Kennesaw, Confederate soldiers used The Texas to chase The General and recapture it near Chattanooga. The General remains in Kennesaw at the Smithsonian-affiliated Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History

Gone With the Wind Sites

While Atlanta Civil War buffs are drawn to battlefields, most tourists come here to relive Atlanta’s fictional past from Gone With the Wind—known locally as “GWTW.”

Visitors can tour the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The site includes a museum dedicated to the movie, which premiered in Atlanta in 1939. Nearby is historic Oakland Cemetery, where Mitchell is buried alongside Civil War generals and such Atlanta luminaries as golfer Bobby Jones.

Tara—the fictional plantation of Scarlett O’Hara—was set in Clayton County, located 15 miles south of downtown Atlanta, which bills itself as GWTW’s official home. The Road to Tara Museum includes original props from the movie, while another tour gives behind-the-scene insights into true stories that Mitchell wove into her book.

For a complete GWTW experience, the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a “Gone With the Wind Premiere Pass” that pairs several Clayton attractions with the Mitchell House and Cyclorama.

Other GWTW sites include Marietta’s Gone With the Wind Museum, featuring Scarlett’s Bengaline honeymoon gown from the movie. Pittypat’s Porch restaurant in downtown Atlanta, which draws its name from Scarlett’s fictional aunt, combines Southern cuisine with GWTW memorabilia. Such touches as menus printed on fans and pewter tableware set the mood for a novel dining experience.

Civil Rights and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While GWTW presents a romanticized view of the Deep South, Atlanta also recalls the more recent struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Progressive leadership helped Atlanta avoid the era’s strife and violence, and “The City Too Busy to Hate” became the capital of the New South that grew from the ashes of segregation.

The life and legacy of Atlanta civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. are preserved at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. The “Sweet Auburn” district includes King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue; Ebenezer Baptist Church, where three generations of the King family preached; the King Visitor Center; and the burial sites of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta. (Note: Historic Ebenezer Baptist is being restored and will reopen by mid-2009.) Auburn is also home to the APEX Museum, which recounts and interprets history from an African-American perspective.

There are several options for exploring the area. The Atlanta Preservation Center gives walking tours of the Sweet Auburn district. Rent a hand-held GPS at the firehouse and travel at your own place. Or, download an iPod tour—narrated by King associate and former mayor Andrew Young—through the Center for Civil & Human Rights Partnership.

Whether you’re interested in the Civil Rights movement or the Civil War, you’ll need a car to explore the history of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Rest assured: you’ll find the unique attractions are worth the drive.

Destinations: Atlanta

Themes: Art and Museums, Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing