Once a symbol of unknown Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Atlanta, the Lion of Atlanta is today a reminder of the violent convolutions of the summer of 2020.

This is old news, but because of the pandemic I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes until recently. Vandals have spray-painted the 127-year-old monument in Historic Oakland Cemetery and slammed it with a hammer and a chisel.

The lion’s heavy, closed eyes and long downturned mouth are gone, as is the top of the Confederate battle flag on which it is resting.

The debate about Confederate monuments started years ago. While a city of Atlanta-sanctioned panel found the statues at Oakland appropriate, the Historic Oakland Foundation erected plaques to put them in context.

What had been a simmering controversy erupted during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. Protestors defaced monuments in cities across the country and across the world.

Heritage groups erected many of those in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Dedicated in 1894 by the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association, the Lion of Atlanta predates those efforts.

While my ancestors fought and died for the South in the Civil War (1861-65), I have no love for the Confederacy. I never have.

I see the conflict for what it was — a war over slavery and the right to legally oppress one group of people deemed inferior by another because of the color of their skin.

A few weeks ago, we took our daughter to Oakland to visit our family mausoleum. The 170-year-old municipal cemetery is one of the most beautiful, tranquil places in the city, especially in the spring.

Then we saw the lion.

It is a knockoff by a Georgia sculptor of the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland, which commemorates the Swiss Guards killed in the French Revolution. A Confederate flag replaced the spears and shields of the original.

Resting in a verdant field where about 3,000 unknown soldiers are buried, it is a poignant reminder of the reality of war. Being willfully ignorant, I hadn’t thought much of the Confederate element. I guess that’s my privilege.

I thought about my great-great-great granddad, Alexander Kennedy, who at the age of 14 lied about his age and joined the Confederate army, and his cousin, Alfred Doby, who died at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia in 1864.

I thought about all of the young men who died violent, premature deaths, and especially those who were never identified. How heartbreaking it must have been for their families to have never learned their fate.

To me, the Lion of Atlanta lent comfort to their souls.

I didn’t think about why they were fighting or the millions of Africans who died gruesome deaths because of the institution of slavery. I didn’t think about those families, who never knew the fate of their children, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, aunts and uncles, grandparents.

When I was 14 — as was the case with Alexander Kennedy — I doubt I would have truly comprehended the “why.”

That being written, I will never understand what compels a person to swing a hammer with such force and violence that it shatters a 30,000-pound marble statue dedicated to the dead and unknown. I also admittedly don’t know the perpetrators’ race or their reasons.

I do know the South’s history in terms of race and disparity is complicated. The rage and anger we saw over the summer are real. We have a long way to go before we can heal. The lion is today a symbol of that reality.

I don’t know what will happen to it. The statue belongs to the city, which hasn’t indicated what it will do — leave it be, restore it or move it to a safe place where vandals can’t destroy it further.

It is interesting the marble of the Lion of Atlanta came from North Georgia. The same quarry yielded the marble for the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Both are cut from the same rock.

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Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at thornton@prsouth.net.

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