The Borglum Era


Following the initial ideas put forth by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, plans for the sculpture moved into the next phase. The UDC, under the direction of Mrs. C. Helen Plane, hired Gutzon Borglum, a renowned sculptor from Connecticut, to consult with them about the proposed Memorial. They sought out Borglum as the best American sculptor of his day. Borglum's most famous work up to that point had been his bust of Abraham Lincoln, which sits in the Hall of Presidents in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Their initial proposal asked for Borglum to carve a bust of Lee ten feet in height at the base of the Mountain that would be larger but very similar to his bust of Lincoln. On his visit to the site, Borglum told the representatives of the UDC that their plan for the bust of the General would be ill-advised on the side of the 3,000+ foot tall outcropping of granite. He compared the idea to placing a postage stamp on the side of a barn and told the UDC that they should reconsider their plans from a more artistic standpoint.

Borglum's ideas of the Memorial resulted in a grand proposal calling for an entire confederate regiment faithfully following behind Robert E. Lee, the head of the group. Borglum envisioned a host of Confederate soldiers trailing the General, giving the effect of an entire regiment of larger-than-life men storming down the mountains in a full battle charge. Borglum's ideas, though impressive, were so expansive that the UDC was unable to even begin such a project with the funds they had on hand. At this point, though, the sculptor had become so enamored of his grand idea that he took upon himself the enormous task of raising the millions of dollars projected for the task. Borglum set to travelling across the country to convince possible supporters of the project of its importance to the country as a national monument honoring bravery and loyalty. He knew that a monument of such a magnitude could be supported by the country, if the country could be convinced of its necessity. To do this, Borglum had to move beyond the sympathies of Southerners into the more affluent Northeast to gain funds. By emphasizing the magnitude of the carving and the national ideals embodied in the Confederate heroes and soldiers, Borglum began to slowly but successfully raise money for the project.

In addition to a thorough campaign for private funds, Borglum sought the help of the Federal Government in the form of political endorsements and public revenues. He was able to secure the endorsements of two powerful Congressmen, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Reed Smoot of Utah, and President Calvin Coolidge for the project. The two Senators set to work on a proposal for a commemorative half dollar to be minted by the U.S. Mint and sold for a dollar. At the same time, Borglum attempted to design a model for the coin that would meet the Mint's strict standards. President Coolidge signed the 1924 Stone Mountain Memorial Coinage Act into law after a convincing fight by the above-mentioned Senators, who had been seen conventionally as enemies of the South. The Act called for the minting of five million coins, which the Stone Mountain Memorial Association was to by at face value and then sell for a dollar apiece, thus earning 2.5 million dollars for the carving of the Memorial.

While Borglum was soliciting funds, the carving began in earnest. Many obstacles presented themselves to the laborers attempting to work their art on the sheer face of the granite outcropping. Four brave African-American laborers were the first over the mountain to rig steel beams into the face on which a platform would be constructed. From this platform, pneumatic drills, used to prepare the rock for strategically placed dynamite, were powered by an air compressor. Initial work went along steadily from the summer of 1923 until January 19, 1924, when 20,000 spectators gathered to observe the unveiling of the completed head of Lee on the anniversary of the General's birth. Spectators were awed by the enormity accuracy of the work, and general excitement surrounded the work.

The sculptor and his corps of laborers then set to work on the figure of Gen. T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson, but work slowed considerably and members of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association began to suspect the sculptor of possible wrongdoing. Borglum took offense to such suspicions and personal conflicts between himself and members of the Association widened to the point of separation. In March of 1925, the sculptor had his models and sketches destroyed by one of his laborers and fled from Georgia. The exact circumstances of Borglum's departure are still unknown.

Borglum maintained that his plans were destroyed for the love of the Confederate Memorial. He claimed that he discovered a terrible imperfection in his plans that, without being corrected, would have ruined the carving. He contended that, since personal conflicts with members of the Association demanded his immediate departure from the state, his only choice as an artist true to his work was to destroy his plans lest they serve as the instrument for the Memorial's destruction.

The UDC and the SMMA both accused Borglum of malice in his actions, and moved for the DeKalb County, Ga., Sheriff's Office to issue a warrant for Borglum's arrest. Such a warrant was served, preventing Borglum from ever entering the state again.

Borglum's reasons for the destruction of his models and sketches will never be definitively understood, but his intentions for the memorial are well documented. He planned to carve the largest sculpture the world had ever seen. None of his work is visible today because it was cleared away by his successor, Augustus Lukeman. All of Borglum's efforts to honor the Confederate cause and those who fought valiantly for it exist only in the minds and annals of those involved with the Memorial in some way or another. He left no tangible legacy on the cliff.

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