The three-foot-high concrete monument at the beginning of the linear park through the median of Peachtree Battle Avenue off Peachtree Road in Buckhead is not a Confederate monument.
Or so I’ve argued in these pages.
Erected by the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard in 1935, it is a monument to the Battle of Peachtree Creek.
The Atlanta-based Gate City Guard was the first militia group to volunteer when Georgia voted to secede from the Union in 1861. Following the Civil War, the group organized a peace mission to the Northeast, meeting with Union veterans and leaders.
By the 1890s, several members were too old for military service, but they felt there was still work to be done through the Gate City Guard. They became the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard. Reconciliation was their central theme. They also helped erect the Peace Monument at Piedmont Park in Midtown.
The Peachtree Battle monument mentions both sides of the conflict, stating, “On this historic ground, where Confederate soldiery, defending Atlanta, met and disputed the southward advance of Federal troops along Peachtree Road July 20, 1864.”
It goes on to mention the American valor of 1776, 1898 (the Spanish-American War), and the “great world conflict of 1917-1918.” A Civil War military cap and a musket are on one side of the top, a World War I helmet and rifle on the other.
I found the decision to remove it by the city of Atlanta at the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy unjust.
However, people smarter than me — I don’t mean that facetiously — say the message underlying that small concrete monument is much more complicated than the words chiseled in its face.
The argument lies in post-war reconciliation and what that meant for blacks across the South. It was an effort to reset the country to the way things were before the Southern states seceded from the Union over slavery. For African Americans, it led to Jim Crow laws and segregation; to balconies at the movies being for “Colored” and the seats below for “Whites.” It meant separate water fountains, seats at the back of the bus and dilapidated, underfunded schools.
Worse, reconciliation meant violence and murder were committed against the black community with little to no protection from the police, the courts or the states.
It’s a subtext to the monument, one not told in the bright red volumes on my bookshelf chronicling the history of the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard. I imagine its members would dispute the narrative. History shows it to be true.
While whites put the Civil War in the rearview and focused on rebuilding, blacks were relegated to barely second-class status. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s that the federal government intervened, forcing Southern states to change their laws and their ways.
In a familiar twist, it turns out by state law the city can’t remove the Peachtree Battle monument or others like it.
Last week, however, at the expense of the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, a plaque appeared next to it. Sheffield Hale, the center’s president and CEO, served on the committee seeking the monument’s removal. The installation of that plaque and three others in the city were approved by the Atlanta City Council in May.
The Buckhead plaque puts the monument in context, explaining that following the Civil War, Union troops remained in the South to ensure African Americans’ rights were protected. When those troops left in 1877, the Southern states systematically began subjugating the black community.
The final paragraph states, “This inscription (on the monument) equates the valor of American Revolution veterans with those who fought to dissolve the United States by establishing the Confederate States of America. It also describes the United States after the Civil War as a perfected nation. This ignores the segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans and others that still existed in 1935.”
When I questioned the decision to remove the monument, I mentioned how I use it to tell my children and anyone who will listen about the Battle of Peachtree Creek. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of putting the battle and the Civil War in context.
I was not.
The monument will remain beneath the soaring ginkgo trees at the entrance to one of Buckhead’s most historically significant neighborhoods. With the plaque by its side, the story is more fully told and, for this writer anyway, better understood.