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Illustration by Stacy Reece
Illustration by Stacy Reece

No Rest for the Lion

After the Civil War, the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association erected a monument to the Confederate dead in the city’s historic Oakland Cemetery. In 2021, it was removed. Writer Mark Beaver ponders what the evolution of that cemetery tells Southerners about themselves.

Of all the places where I could have proposed marriage, I chose a cemetery. Not just any boneyard, but the rolling green hillside behind the white clapboard country church in north Georgia where my paternal grandparents were laid to rest and where, in time, my father and mother would join them.

It was early June, the sun brilliant as it collided with the headstones dotting the vista. On the edge of the grounds, right beside a basin of wild daisies that blooms like clockwork every spring, she said yes and I slipped the ring onto her finger. The Blue Ridge Mountains, old as time itself, loomed in the backdrop. Our sole witnesses were the generations in attendance resting six feet under.

It’s hard to explain why I thought it would be a good idea to ask for Bernadette’s hand in marriage while surrounded by the dead. At the time, I didn’t go through any rigorous examination of my motives; I was simply responding to what felt intrinsically like the only sensible thing to do. Perhaps I had a premonition that death would come early and often in our marriage — within a handful of years, three of our four parents would be gone. I was thinking, too, of how I was welcoming her into my people — into the ancestral tree that took root long before we met and would sprout a new branch with our union and blossom long after we passed. But I think it has more to do with what cemeteries say about time. A proposal of marriage is making a wish on eternity, expressing a sincere hope that this union will endure forever. As a setting, a cemetery embodies stability and permanence. Nothing conveys finality more than the sight of all those grave markers stretching toward the horizon.

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But these days, even cemeteries are subject to change. Case in point: for 127 years, a statue called the Lion of Atlanta guarded the remains of 3,000 unknown Confederate soldiers in Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery — but today there is no Lion. All that’s left is a few squares of fresh sod and a rotating sprinkler.

The Lion was 15 tons of Georgia marble. When the six-foot statue was commissioned by the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association in 1894 and chiseled by artist T.M. Brady, it was modeled after Switzerland’s Lion of Lucerne, which commemorates the massacre of Swiss guards during the French Revolution and features a mortally wounded lion protecting the shields of the French monarchy and the Swiss coat of arms. Brady’s lion, too, is lying down, signifying its defeat, but sprawls atop a Confederate battle flag, clinging to the banner — a clear gesture of loyalty to and mourning for the fallen Confederacy.

On August 18, 2021, a local rigging company removed the sculpture and transported it to an undisclosed location. Citing its removal as “necessary and appropriate for the preservation, protection and interpretation of the monument,” the Atlanta City Council exercised its jurisdiction and authority over any objections the Historic Oakland Foundation might have posed.

The most visible and iconic symbols of Lost Cause propaganda were, of course, monuments like the Lion of Atlanta.

Over the prior two years, the city had spent more than $30,000 repairing and maintaining this memorial as it was vandalized at least eight separate times. The starkest incident was a bucketful of red paint emptied in the middle of the night, dousing the Lion in what looked eerily like blood. Its face was chipped by some blunt implement, perhaps a pick ax or a sledgehammer. Vandals spray-painted graffiti across it: ACAB, Death 2 Racists, No Gods No Master, Dead Loser, BLM, Racist Traitor.

City officials had seen this coming. In response to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, they commissioned a review of Atlanta’s monuments, but because Georgia law prevented their removal, the powers that be resorted to contextualization markers, installed in August 2019. The Lion’s marker alerted visitors that the sculpture “serves as a visual representation of the Lost Cause.” But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, even the marker bore the impact of the rage when it was defaced with the words No apologis. Initially, the city tried to prevent further vandalism by constructing a gothic-style fence, installing floodlights and cameras, and hiring security guards to patrol the grounds overnight. But such steps yielded no solutions. No arrests were made. The vandalism continued. Some argued the security measures only invited more destruction. The calls for removal intensified.

Yet in the eyes of some Southerners, what makes the Lion of Atlanta more complicated than statues erected on courthouse lawns is that it resided in a cemetery — the most historical in all of the city. In 1867, the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association (ALMA), a forerunner of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, petitioned the city council for land to bury the war’s unknown dead. Typically, Southern soldiers were buried where they fell, their bodies shoveled into shallow trenches with only blankets and a thin layer of dirt. Often their decomposed bodies or bleached bones were discovered by farmers resuming their work after the war ended. At least 40 percent of the corpses were unidentifiable: In “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” author Clint Smith notes, “New forms of artillery had been introduced during the Civil War that left men’s bodies ravaged in a way that had previously been unseen in standard warfare. Sometimes all that was left was a leg or an arm or a head with no body attached.” There was no standard identification — no dog tags or ID bands — and even if soldiers could be identified, the South didn’t have the resources to transfer the dead back to their homeland.

So, ALMA’s attempts to find a resting place for those 3,000 anonymous Johnny Rebs who met their Maker during the Atlanta Campaign of 1864 seemed purely an attempt to memorialize the dead. But by the time ALMA raised funds to erect the Lion of Atlanta decades later, the Lost Cause had become one of the most successful programs of mass propaganda in U.S. history. In “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” Ty Seidule writes, “The Lost Cause became a movement, an ideology, a myth, even a civil religion that would unite first the white South and eventually the nation around the meaning of the Civil War.” The most visible and iconic symbols of this propaganda were of course monuments like the Lion of Atlanta.

Shortly before its removal, the Lion of Atlanta showing signs of vandalism: a chipped nose and red paint.
Shortly before its removal, the Lion of Atlanta showing signs of vandalism: a chipped nose and red paint.

Unveiled on Confederate Memorial Day three decades after the war’s cessation, the giant feline looks sleepy, weary of the battles it has fought, too tired to take up arms again. Maybe it’s already dead. It’s hard to tell. The Lion’s enigmatic symbolism has contributed to the controversy surrounding it. Is it merely another totem to white supremacy? Or does its location and solemn artistry simply grieve the loss of human life?

The Historic Oakland Foundation asserts monuments like the Lion of Atlanta and the Confederate Obelisk that stands 65 feet tall in the center of the grounds play a vital role in forging racial reconciliation today.

“These monuments create opportunities for us,” says the HOF, “both as individuals and as a community, to acknowledge injustices of the past and to more inclusively address how our collective history shapes both our present and our future.” And it has artistic merit as well. The Smithsonian Institution lists the Lion as a historically significant piece of funerary art.

Home to more than 70,000 graves, Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place of Atlantans of every ilk and stripe, from the indigent buried in unmarked graves in Potter’s Field to those housed in majestic mausolea perched on some of the city’s highest ground. To stroll the site is to walk through history, literally.

There’s too much residue of the Civil War here, too deep a shadow cast by the Lost Cause, too long a legacy of injustice, for even a cemetery memorial to survive unscathed.

Oakland grew straight out of the Victorian obsession with the classic Good Death. Atlanta had only been incorporated for five years and claimed just 2,575 citizens when civic leaders purchased the property in 1850. Established on six acres of rolling farmland as, simply, Atlanta Cemetery or City Burial Place, it was originally conceived as a simple graveyard like so many of its time — an unremarkable patch of earth where bodies would be summarily disposed of to avoid disease or the stench of decay. But by 1872, when the death toll of the Civil War necessitated its expansion to 48 acres of pastoral green space and it took its official name as Oakland, it became something else altogether. It now was a true cemetery — a “sleeping place,” as the word translates in Greek — and an idyllic setting for the departed to rest peacefully until they were reunited with their loved ones for all eternity.

Oakland seemed designed in the spirit of William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” which romanticizes death as a never-ending slumber in nature filled with “pleasant dreams.” Adorned with magnolias and mature oaks (from which it gets its name), the space became as much a lush natural oasis as a burial ground and served as one of the nation’s foremost examples of the rural garden cemetery movement. Gilded Age Atlantans rode in carriages to their family plots, where they picnicked among the shade trees, meandering paths and headstones that were often draped with shawls and decorated like beds with plush pillows.

Soon, families were investing great sums of money to convey wealth and status and make eternal statements about the significance of a single life. Obelisks jutted toward the sky; mausolea featuring handcrafted stained-glass windows loomed against the horizon like miniature cathedrals; statuaries showcased elegant and ornate funerary art, precise in every detail; inscriptions unscrolled in purple prose: For when my years tremble to their close, I would sleep beneath your soil where the drip of April tears may fall upon my grave and the sunshine of your skies warm southern flowers to bloom upon my breast.

The railroad builder and banker Alfred Austell’s mausoleum is one example. Erected on a high knoll in the center of the cemetery, it’s a veritable edifice in every sense of the word — 40 feet tall with an interior of Italian marble and square footage enough for 28 family members. It cost $16,000 to construct — an astronomical price in 1883. Oakland’s design became a model for broader changes in the city’s evolving landscape, influencing everything from its picturesque public parks to its neighborhood planning. Libraries, museums and, yes, cemeteries: Collectively, they would, in the words of 19th century urban visionary Andrew Jackson Downing, “soften and humanize the rude, educate and enlighten the ignorant, and give continual enjoyment to the educated.”

But for all its beauty and serenity, Oakland Cemetery also reflected the city’s complex race relations. Unlike most cemeteries of the era, it was integrated, yet Blacks were buried in the section designated “colored,” in the northeastern corner of the original six acres that came to be known as Slave Square, and Black visitors could not stroll the lanes alongside their white counterparts. A 14-year-old boy named John was the first recorded burial in the segregated section.

Over 800 people lay in rest there by the end of the Civil War. The war’s death toll and the population growth of the city during Reconstruction, however, put burial space in Oakland at a premium. In 1877, City Council’s solution was to exhume the bodies and bones of those buried in Slave Square and rebury them in Oakland’s “colored pauper grounds.” Graves were replotted and sold to white Atlantans. The African American Burial Grounds, which remained segregated until 1963, occupied the lowest point in the cemetery, and the sloping terrain flooded with every hard downpour.

Historically, African American burial traditions incorporated wood, shrubbery, flowers and other natural markers. As a result, though more than 12,000 Blacks rest at Oakland today, few markers survive. The majority of those buried here are undocumented. We don’t know precisely where many bodies lie. In Oakland’s history, there had never been a large-scale restoration of this section of the cemetery — until recently. Markers and monuments had become so decrepit they were threatening to break; walls were crumbling, on the verge of collapsing altogether. In 2016, however, a geological radar survey discovered over 800 unmarked burials of Black Atlantans. The sight of hundreds of construction markers at each spot signaled a move toward bringing some of the cemetery’s untold stories to light, one tiny orange flag at a time.

In June 2022, civic leaders held a ribbon-cutting to celebrate completion of the restoration project. Perhaps Richard Harker, executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation, put it best in his opening remarks at the ceremony: “We have literally been able to uncover the past and add greater nuance and understanding to how we, as Atlantans, understand ourselves.”

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I visited Oakland only a few days before the Lion’s removal. It was apparent how diligently workers had scrubbed the sculpture in hopes of returning it to its original state, how much elbow-grease had been invested in erasing all evidence of dissent. But the paint was embedded so deeply in the crevices that, even from my vantage point outside its protective fence, there was no mistaking its blood-red traces.

That’s the gist of it, it seems. There’s too much residue of the Civil War here, too deep a shadow cast by the Lost Cause, too long a legacy of injustice, for even a cemetery memorial to survive unscathed.

Now the Lion is gone altogether. The sprinkler does its work, and in time the seams between the squares of sod will merge, and it will be as though no statue were ever here.

My wife and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We remember fondly that sparkling June day in the mountain cemetery when I proposed and she said yes. There have been times when our union seemed precarious, moments that benefited from reminding ourselves that some things can last forever. But no longer can we count cemeteries in that number. They aren’t as stable and permanent as I once imagined. They, too, are subject to change. And as I reconcile that fact, I am reminded of another thing that seems true of cemeteries—something too easily forgotten. Something so obvious that it makes people usually avoid proposing marriage in them.

Cemeteries are haunted places — haunted by the past.

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