But the battles of the “Western Theater” — then considered the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River — had a great impact on the war that often gets overlooked.
Those battles are the focus of a new television miniseries called “Civil War: The Untold Story.”
Airing Sunday night from 7 p.m. to midnight on WPBA, one of two PBS member TV stations in Atlanta, the miniseries depicts some of the most important battles fought in north Georgia.
“The film is not just about who we were then, it’s about who we are now,” said Chris Wheeler, producer and director of the film, which was shot over the last two years. “In a nation arguably as divided today as we were 150 years ago, ‘Civil War: The Untold Story’ is a compelling, relevant program that we believe will strike a powerful chord with Americans today.”
The last hour of the film focuses on local battles in Kennesaw and Atlanta. Wheeler feels those battles were some of the biggest of the entire war, securing re-election for Abraham Lincoln and guaranteeing that the Emancipation Proclamation would stand.
Wheeler’s company, Great Divide Pictures, also produced a film shown in the visitor’s center at Cobb County’s Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
The series is narrated by Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern and focuses on the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chickamauga in addition to Atlanta.
Another way the series deviates from most Civil War documentaries is in telling the stories of African Americans and civilians.
Timed to coincide with 150th anniversary
The series is timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the “Campaign for Atlanta,” including that year’s presidential campaign and the Battle of Kennesaw.
Though many of the film’s battle re-enactments took place on the actual battlegrounds, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park was not a filming site.
Several factors contributed, including the park’s accessibility to the public and the need to build trenches, according to Kennesaw State history professor Michael Shaffer.
Instead, the small town of Resaca, about an hour north of Cobb, was used, becoming a replacement for Kennesaw. Filming for the Battle of Kennesaw took place in the summer of 2012.
Kennesaw State students got a special look at “Civil War: The Untold Story” ahead of its television debut last month, with Wheeler and local historian Willie Ray Johnson conducting a question and answer session afterward.
“They do a good job of interweaving into the story line the plight of the African-Americans, both enslaved persons as well as some of what they call the United States Colored Troops who were part of Sherman’s army,” Shaffer said.
“They singled out a few individuals in Marietta, like an African-American nurse who tended to wounded federal troops.”
Upon the nurse’s death, soldiers she had cared for insisted she be buried in the Marietta National Cemetery, and many of those soldiers are buried next to her today.
“It’s a moving part of the story,” said Shaffer.
Fleshing out the secrets of history
According to Shaffer, a critical reason the western battles are overlooked is there were not many newspapers in those areas during the 1860s.
He said the battles were often overlooked even in their own times because so few reporters and photographers were there to document them.
“It’s hard to think of Atlanta as part of the west today, but back then that’s what it was referred to as,” Wheeler said. “Anything west of the Appalachian Mountains was considered the west. That’s our primary untold story.”
Wheeler also spoke about the different civilian experiences between the North and South, another focus of the film.
He explained that because the war was fought mostly in the South civilians often found themselves caught in the crossfire. The war literally could be on people’s doorstep in the Southern states.
Atlanta as ‘ground zero’ for western battles
Atlanta was “ground zero” of the Western Theater, according to Wheeler. It wasn’t until the Union Army won victories here that voters gained enough confidence in Lincoln to give him his second term 150 years ago.
Because of Lincoln’s re-election, slavery was officially ended and the nation was brought back together.
“The ultimate untold story that is interesting to readers is that if Lincoln was not re-elected, which seemed very much in doubt, most likely the Emancipation Proclamation would be called unconstitutional by the next president,” Wheeler said.
“If Lincoln is not elected, the Union would have negotiated a peaceful end to the war with the Confederacy, readmitting states into the Union and allowing them to still keep slaves.”
Only a handful of people have seen the film so far, but Nancy Walthers, superintendent at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, gave the film a ringing endorsement.
“Chris (Wheeler) is a genius as far as making it seem like you’re right there,” she said.
WPBA broadcasts on channel 30 and can be found on local cable and satellite subscription packages.
What: ‘Civil War: The Untold Story,’ narrated by Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern
When: The five-part miniseries airs in its entirety Sunday, April 6, 7 p.m. to midnight
Where: WPBA TV Channel 30
It highlights: The new Civil War documentary focuses on the ‘Western Theater,’ the battles between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Featured heavily are the battles of Kennesaw and Atlanta and the experience of civilians living in the area.