by Beth Balga
Not many people say, “It’s a beautiful day, let’s go to the cemetery.” But after walking through Oakland Cemetery, my family might. On a recent balmy evening, we took the Civil War twilight tour through this historic place, which is the final resting place of many famous Atlantans, including Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, legendary golfer Bobby Jones and 27 Atlanta mayors, including Maynard Jackson, as well as thousands of fallen Civil War soldiers.
Designed in 1850 as a public burial ground, Oakland Cemetery, located just blocks from the Georgia Capitol, expanded to 48 acres in the 1860s to accommodate the Civil War casualties from the various battles around Georgia. It became a popular place for carriage rides and picnics where families could reminisce about their lost loved ones.
Following the Victorian era, Oakland fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1976, when the Historic Oakland Foundation was created and the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, that preservationists began to restore Oakland to its original grandeur. Still an active cemetery, with about one burial a month, Oakland evokes haunting images of European and New Orleans’ cemeteries. With beautiful, well-tended gardens, the place offers spectacular views of the Atlanta skyline and pays tribute to the honorable souls buried in the elaborate mausoleums as well as more modest family plots.
The topics of the twilight tours, which run through Oct. 16, vary, from Atlanta’s founding fathers to the art and architecture of death. There also are tours focusing on African-Americans and Jews buried at the cemetery. Many distinctions of earlier life were maintained in death, as African-Americans were buried apart from whites and Jewish sections were separate from Christian. Detailed pamphlets on each section are available in the visitors’ center.
Our Civil War twilight tour was lively and interesting, but not recommended for children under 10. (It’s too hard for the younger ones to follow a leader for more than an hour, while resisting the urge to climb on the monuments.) Our tour guide, historian and author Bruce Stewart, shared anecdotal stories about the wartime leaders and soldiers, the heroes as well as the unsavory characters buried there. He brought alive the history of Atlanta.
Two historical markers within Oakland describe its connections with momentous events of the Civil War. In 1862, Union operatives known as Andrews’ Raiders commandeered a locomotive at present-day Kennesaw and raced north to cut telegraph lines. They were captured and condemned as spies. Seven were hanged near Oakland’s southeast corner and interred in the cemetery before removal to the National Cemetery at Chattanooga. On high ground north of the Bell Tower, a two-story farmhouse stood in the summer of 1864. It served as headquarters for Confederate commander John B. Hood during the Battle of Atlanta.
Visiting the Civil War section was particularly moving. The thousands of uniform headstones, from both sides of the battles, convey the great loss that war caused and of the individuals who gave their lives. Since the 1890s, the soldiers’ graves have been “guarded” by the Confederate Lion, a commemorative sculpture modeled after the Swiss “Lion of Lucerne” and carved in 1894 from the largest block of marble quarried in Georgia up to that time.
Historic Oakland Cemetery
248 Oakland Ave. SE, Atlanta
Dates: The cemetery is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Through Oct. 16, guided twilight tours take place on Saturdays and Sundays, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. In addition, guided walking tours run on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m., 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. through November.
Cost: Guided tours cost $10 for adults, $5 for children. Self-guided walking tour maps are available at the visitors’ center/museum shop for $4.