Supporting the “battle” to preserve local history

By Georgia Humanities Staff

Henry Bryant remembers how difficult it was 10 years ago to get support for B*ATL—a series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta. Predominantly African American neighborhoods were understandably reluctant to get behind an effort to remember a Civil War battle. Yet, once they understood the aims of B*ATL, says Bryant, “They came to realize that this is real history—right in our own backyard.”

The Battle of Atlanta in July 1864 was a turning point in the war. Because Atlanta was a critical railroad hub, integral to supplying the Confederacy, the Union determined that ultimate victory would necessitate severing that link. Still, in 1864 many Northerners didn’t believe the war could be won. But with the North’s victory in the Battle of Atlanta, President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection—unlikely up to that point—was secured.

While the Atlanta battle was one of the Civil War’s 10 bloodiest, it’s the only one of the 10 without a single acre of officially preserved battlefield. Preservation was on Bryant’s mind when he and his neighbors started B*ATL events in 2004. Georgia Humanities began supporting the program in 2009, with 2014 marking the culmination of activities.

B*ATL organized local neighborhoods around the old battlegrounds to commemorate the event with a “living-history” encampment (complete with front lines, reenactment soldiers, and artillery), a 5K run, a gala dinner, historic bus/bike/walking tours, a “Civil War to Civil Rights” tent, author talks, children’s activities, storytelling, and dramatic performances.

In 2014 a Georgia Humanities grant helped to expand author appearances during the weeklong festivities, covering venue costs, author honorariums, and publicity. Author talks, says Bryant, “served to expose visitors to rich accounts of events and people at that time, educate them with different perspectives of the same events, and leave them with a broader view of history.”

The actual battles, says Bryant, are only so interesting; it’s the countless, colorful human stories from the Atlanta battle that captivate him. He says, “It’s fascinating to discover that one of the Union casualties was an older gentleman who used to own the general store in Indiana where Abraham Lincoln worked as a teenager. Or ponder what it must’ve been like to wear wool uniforms in Atlanta in July. Or to discover that Atlanta actually had a hidden black middle class—of slaves! Might that have contributed to the civil rights movement to come? All are ideas that can expand your mind.”

Bryant and his group were some of the very early champions of the “Civil War to Civil Rights” idea—ultimately a statewide initiative to capture and share events and programs that explore the connections between these periods of American history.

Bryant reflected on his positive experience with Georgia Humanities, saying, “I’m just a neighbor trying to put on an event, so I really appreciated what Georgia Humanities could offer. They’re all about sharing history. Their connections around the state were a big help, and being able to use their name as a calling card made things a lot easier.”