“I don’t know who would learn history from monuments. We have history books for that!“
People in general don’t read. This is nothing new; literacy has traditionally only ever been for the elite, not the general masses that make up the work force. Very few have ever learned anything from dry histories anyway. History books and facts as names and numbers and dates — that’s why we fell asleep in class.
But spend a day with me at Gettysburg and I can show you what it meant to fight there. I can take you to the spot where the future was created, tell you the tale of the lost shoes, show you where Reynolds fell and why it mattered, where the 20th Maine made their stand and how, and let you see the terrible beauty of Pickett’s Charge.
Some of our monuments have nothing unique to teach, it’s true, but most are set in some sort of context. The location of the “Peace Monument” in Piedmont Park in Atlanta tells a tale all its own, for instance — a story most people will probably never learn, because while the history is both fascinating and strangely beautiful, the monument has been targeted, and now politics will get in the way.
The siege of Atlanta by Union troops in 1864 was a turning point of the Civil War. Southern resistance was starting to crumble, but they were holding out hope due to the ongoing presidential election in the North. That all changed when Atlanta fell; newspaper correspondents were thick on the ground, and while the papers didn’t print photographs at the time, the images in the papers were lurid enough. Factories and supply depots, rail yards and ammo dumps — they all burned that night when General Hood marched away, and the descriptions in the papers won Lincoln the election as much as anything else. The South was doomed, and much of Atlanta lay in ashes.
The first of the militia units defending the city from the Bluecoats had been the Gate City Guard, founded in 1857 to help preserve order in an emergency. Formed around a core from the city’s fire department, the unit was comprised of many of Atlanta’s leading citizens. They performed with distinction during civil emergencies, particularly during the Mercantile Fire of 1859, and during secession they volunteered as a unit for military service. After the war, the surviving Guard disbanded with the rest of the Georgia state troops, but it was reformed after Reconstruction and eventually absorbed into the National Guard, where it still exists today as the 122nd Infantry, a training outfit still based in Marietta.
But back in 1877, tensions still ran high between North and South. The last of the Federal occupation troops had just been withdrawn from Georgia by President Hayes, and Atlanta had still hardly begun to rebuild. The process was slow and investment hesitant, burdened by the continued resentments over the “late unpleasantness”. But a prominent citizen named Joseph Burke conceived an audacious plan to address this. Under his leadership, the Gate City Guard reformed — once more as a private militia — and in 1879 they began what they called the “Peaceful Invasion of the North”, a demonstration by a crack unit now loyal to the Union.
Their first stop was New York City, where they were received by the men of the Seventh Regiment. There, before an admiring crowd, they put on an expert display of marching and the arts of the drill, and later they banqueted with the New York boys. Captain Burke made a powerful speech, one worth quoting:
“The Southern flag… has been furled… We are again in our fathers’ house, and in the emblem that floats above, we recognize the Stars and Stripes of our forefathers, the colors of the Nation, the talismanic shield that will unite the growing states of this great country in one Union, inseparable forever hereafter.
“Here on Northern soil the sons of those who were estranged in deadly conflict but a few years ago, meet and embrace in the bonds of fellowship – united once more under the same roof – breaking bread at the same table; it is a grand subject, this glorious re-union and the fraternal mingling of two great sections of our country, representing a brave and magnanimous people. We feel that good may come of this visit to you. We know that the war and its evil consequences to us are things of the past and should be forgotten. The past is buried, and now we must look to the future.”
The goodwill tour passed through the major cities of the North and was met with great success. Bonds of friendship were formed between former foes, and the groundwork was laid for future visitations, eventually leading to the great reunions at places like Gettysburg, where veterans of both armies met and shook hands, reunited at last. Opportunities were taken for commercial bonds as well, and Atlanta’s businesses began a period of recovery and then rapid growth over the next several years.
When Georgia regularized the state’s militia in the 1890s, several of the members of the Guard found themselves too old to serve, and during a disagreement with the state government they chose instead to retire as a group. Calling themselves the “Old Guard”, they continued to participate in civic events, chief among which was the organization of the great Exposition of 1895 in what would become Piedmont Park. Notably, this was the occasion of Booker T. Washington’s famous address on the subject of race relations, one lauded by many leaders of the day, particularly the organizers of the Exposition. (It was criticized by W.E.B. DuBois, who dubbed it the “Atlanta Compromise”, feeling that it did not go far enough toward addressing social equality. Washington’s belief was that “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.” It’s easy to appreciate both perspectives, particularly in the context of the times.)
It was on the site of this Exposition and not far from the location of the speech that the Peace Monument was constructed by the Old Guard. Dedicated in 1911, fifty years after Ft. Sumter, this was intended to celebrate the end of the War and the joys of peace, the accomplishments of the people of Atlanta, and the embrace of the Union. It was intended to commemorate in particular the legacy of the Gate City Guard and its Peaceful Invasion, and it was built in part from granite used in the Exposition.
I can’t tell you much about Burke as a man. He was born in Ireland, served in the War from its opening shots as a cadet of 16, married the daughter of one of the most prominent men of Georgia, and became highly active both in business and in philanthropy. He was an active organizer; the Atlanta Public Library and Grady Hospital both came about in part as a result of his efforts, and he was president of the Atlanta Humane Society for some twenty years. Today, of course, people mostly would want to hear about his attitude toward slavery, and of that I have little knowledge; all I do know for sure is that he tried to help his neighbors as best he could.
When you come right down to it, that’s really all I need to know.
In the light of its history, the monument Burke and his friends had built to commemorate peace is a singularly odd target for protest. With Stone Mountain to the east, the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield to the west, and hundreds of historical markers throughout the city, there are monuments aplenty to the Confederacy near Atlanta — but not so much in Piedmont Park. It’s been suggested that the Peace Monument celebrates segregation by omission, that it ought at the least to have recognized slavery and its evils — but that doesn’t consider the context of 1911 Georgia.
The main virtue of the park itself would seem to be convenience. It’s comfortable, wide open, has plenty of parking, and is easy to access not only from the city but anywhere in the region. Given that the Peace Monument was deliberately chosen as a demonstration site, and that it is wildly inappropriate for anyone to protest it, one must conclude that it was selected not as an offensive construction but instead as an easy way to deepen division, and to create conflict where none exists.
We’re told these statues should be pulled down, that they glorify a mythical vanished past and support the intellectually bankrupt philosophy of “White Supremacy”. We’re told that their place is in a museum, not in city parks. In many cases, this position may have merit — but not here; not in Piedmont Park Because anyone who knows the history of this monument and of this park should oppose vehemently any defacement and any vandalism. It tells a story, and the context of its location is the most appropriate one imaginable.
- The website of the Old Guard, http://oldguard-atlanta.org/history
- “Chronicles of the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard”, H.C. Fairmann
- Joseph Francis Burke papers, Emory University
- “Infantry Battalion State Fencibles”, Lanard (excerpted by Google Books)
Photograph from the Old Guard’s website; no copyright is asserted by me.