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Interpreting Atlanta’s Confederate History

More than 70,000 souls rest at Oakland Cemetery, including 6,900 Confederate soldiers buried in the Confederate Burial Grounds. Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) is working to expand understanding of Oakland Cemetery’s Civil War history through contextual panels and digital exhibits. This post kicks off a series of articles and videos that will explore Oakland Cemetery’s history, Confederate monuments, and public memory of the Civil War.

More than 6,900 Confederate soldiers (and 16 Union soldiers) were buried in the Confederate Burial Grounds. Many of these soldiers died in Atlanta hospitals during the war and in battles preceding the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Individual tombstones and two large marble shafts mark their graves. The remains of approximately 3,000 unknown soldiers rest in Lion Square, a large green space marked by the Lion of Atlanta monument.

Two monuments, the Confederate Obelisk and the Lion of Atlanta, were constructed to honor and memorialize the Confederate dead. The Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association (ALMA), a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Confederate dead, commissioned both monuments. ALMA unveiled the 65-foot tall Confederate Obelisk on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1874. Completed in 1894 by artist T.M. Brady, the Lion of Atlanta is a six-foot marble sculpture based on the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland.

Understanding Confederate Monuments in Oakland and Beyond
The Confederate Obelisk and Lion of Atlanta were created to memorialize the dead but later became gathering places for Confederate Memorial Day celebrations. These celebrations and the individuals who fought to vindicate the Confederacy helped to perpetuate the Lost Cause, a distorted interpretation of the Civil War. The Lost Cause ideology ignored slavery as the main cause of the Civil War and encouraged a racial hierarchy where African Americans were subservient to whites. The Lost Cause remained a powerful influence in the South for generations.

Students protesting racial segregation at the Georgia Capitol building. Courtesy Atlanta Journal Constitution Photographic Archives, Georgia State University Library

Most early Confederate monuments, such as the Confederate Obelisk and the Lion of Atlanta, were erected to honor the dead and served as communal sites for grieving families to mourn those lost and buried far from home. As the former Confederate states emerged from the aftermath of the Civil War, white Southerners continued to struggle with the war’s human cost, the shock of defeat, and social upheaval. The motivations behind constructing Confederate monuments changed as a result. Monuments as symbols of grief and remembrance gave way to sculptural statements of defiant political resistance to integration. In the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, many Confederate monuments were constructed to celebrate the Confederate cause and reinforce dominant racial hierarchies. Monument construction spiked in the early and mid-twentieth century during periods of tension over civil rights and opposition to racial equality.

The Confederate Obelisk, the Lion of Atlanta, and other Confederate monuments serve as reminders that our perspectives and understanding of history change over time. We know that many Confederate monuments are dedicated to the sacrifice of thousands of individuals. These men and boys fought and died for a cause. But, we also know that this cause was founded on continuing a slaveholding society. We understand that by failing to recognize slavery or emancipation, most Confederate monuments ignored the struggles of African Americans, the result of which silenced the voices of millions.

The Confederate Obelisk, the Lion of Atlanta, and other Confederate monuments serve as reminders that our perspectives and understanding of history change over time.

Interpreting Confederate Monuments in Atlanta
Following the tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the Atlanta City Council created a committee to assess city-owned Confederate monuments and street names. The Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy recommended removing two Confederate monuments and renaming streets associated with the Confederacy and its leaders. Several streets were successfully renamed. However, Georgia state law prohibits removing or obscuring existing monuments.

Historic Oakland Foundation, the Atlanta History Center, and the City of Atlanta collaborated to add permanent interpretive panels at the city’s Confederate monuments. These contextual markers provide information about the monuments, the motivations behind their construction, and their social impact in the past and present. The historical panels address the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and acknowledge the struggles of African Americans experiencing and fighting against slavery and segregation. Three new interpretive panels were installed in Oakland’s Confederate Burial Grounds in August 2019. These panels were funded by the Atlanta History Center and the City of Atlanta.

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