Sam Burnham, Curator
The City of Atlanta, in their infinite wisdom, has seen fit to add “contextualization” to many historic markers and monuments. This action was put into motion by former mayor Kasim Reed whose administration continues to be the subject of multiple corruption investigations.
One site adding “contextualization” is Oakland Cemetery. Oakland is a true jewel of Atlanta. We’ve featured the cemetery here as well as on our Instagram on multiple occasions. It’s natural and architectural beauty as well as its historic significance make it an oasis of Victorian charm in a modern city that doesn’t hesitate to demolish the past.
So let’s take a look at these new markers the city has placed at Oakland. At issue is the Lion of Atlanta and the Confederate obelisk. These monuments stand in the Confederate section where close to 7000 soldiers lie in the soil. As a transportation hub, Atlanta became a makeshift medical Mecca for wounded and dying soldiers from battles such as Chickamauga, Resaca, and Kennesaw Mountain. After the war, many soldiers buried hastily in battlefield graves were reinterred at Oakland. The 65 foot tall obelisk, the tallest structure in Atlanta at the time, and the Lion of Atlanta were placed to recognize the dead. These are not “Lost Cause” monuments. The fact that the lion stands over a field of some 3000 unknown soldiers, most of whom lie in unmarked graves, means that this monument, recognized as a significant work of art by The Smithsonian, serves as a proper burial marker for those who died defending their homes and families.
Which brings us to the cause. There remain two myths about the cause of the war. One myth would have us believe that the war had nothing to do with slavery. The other myth would have us believe that it was all about slavery. Both of these are lies and the people pushing both know they are lies. The truth is that the struggle between state sovereignty and centralized power in America predates the Constitution. The war was inevitable because of these two factors: slavery and the question of sovereignty.
But one truth must be told. The 7000 men who lie at Oakland are mostly common soldiers. Most owned no slaves and had little investment in maintaining that institution. If they were from Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, or north Georgia, the scourge of war had already threatened, if not decimated their homes. These were the men who, like the soldier in Shelby Foote’s narrative, were “fighting because you’re down here.”
Fellow Georgian and lover of history and Oakland Cemetery, Eb Joseph Daniels, put it this way and I quite agree:
“The new contextualization plaques are up at Historic Oakland Cemetery. While the text is far less leading than the inscription planned by the DeKalb County Commission to adorn the DeKalb County Confederate Memorial Obelisk, I do feel that it was remiss to include the modern assessment of the function of Confederate monuments on the plaque which acknowledges the Lion of the Confederacy.The Lion is effectively a headstone, and therefore seems a poor spot for academic discourses which, I feel, would seem better suited for the obelisk, which is not the marker for any individual grave.
Nevertheless, working within the constraints placed by the City of Atlanta, I think that the Historic Oakland Foundation did the very best job that it could under the circumstances. There is lots of good and valuable information here which will help enlighten visitors who do not take a tour or purchase a guidebook.”
Daniels and I are also in agreement that the third marker for the Confederate Memorial Grounds was more tastefully done. Neither of us think the City of Atlanta had any mandate on this marker. As for the Lion of Atlanta and the Confederate Obelisk, these are not Lost Cause monuments. “Contextualization” tying them to the Lost Cause is done in poor taste. They are grave markers. And while there are monuments that should be accompanied by contextualization, the City of Atlanta is carrying it too far by insisting on marking those that don’t need it and also by skewing the new narrative too far in the other direction. The war was complex and understanding it requires a depth of inquiry that can’t be facilitated on a monument or a contextualization marker. We need contextualization that will provoke questions and conversations - a search for truth rather than pontification from the thought police.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire