Genesis

1910s


In the beginning, was the mountain. The largest chunk of exposed granite in the world, it attracted a steady stream of odd visitors. Some set up observatory towers on the mountain; others quarried it; still others imagined that it was made of precious metals. Then the war came. . .and passed by Stone Mountain with little fanfare. The central event in the nation's history and in the lives of the three figures--General Robert E. Lee, General T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis--now engraved on the mountain did not scar the granite monolith at all, although observers on the mountain did have an excellent view of Atlanta's fall to General Sherman.

In the years immediately following the War, Southern whites made little or no efforts to commemorate their valor in the "Late Unpleasantness". Their land occupied by federal troops, their citizenship rights temporarily denied, their homes and fields ruined, and their loved ones dead, they wanted help and revenge, not celebration. The only active Confederate veterans groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, devoted themselves to responding to the physical needs of other veterans and their families (and, all too often, to intimidation and violence against the occupying federals and successful blacks). Attitudes did change, however, and by the 1880s veterans met frequently to exchange stories, reenact battles, and march in parades. After the Spanish American war brought greater social unity to the country at the turn of the century, the celebration intensified.

Like the period of mourning and rebuilding, the period of celebration also came to an end. In the early part of the twentieth century, Father Time had thinned the ranks of the Veterans so severely that they lost their role as the primary keepers of the Confederate tradition to a younger generation. This younger generation, led by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, emphasized different commemorative strategies than the older generation had emphasized. While the Veterans had celebrated their role in the historic contest with songs and poems, the new generation focused on the preservation of the Confederate Lost Cause through monuments, books, and even movies (D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, released in 1914, is the most famous attempt to preserve memories of Southern glory through film). There was some predictable controversy as to exactly what kind of past to portray, (as the Janus link demonstrates in the specific case of Southern women), but there was a uniform desire to somehow make permanent the fleeting ideals and memories of the Old South.

Competing Sculptural Representations of Southern Women

Mrs. Helen Plane, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the UDC, initiated the grandest attempts at preservation of an ideal ever undertaken. She hoped to enshrine, on the face of Stone Mountain, all of the glory of the Old South, captured in the person of Robert E. Lee. Although she began speaking to her friends about the project as early as 1909, she did not make any official moves on the project until 1915. Then, encouraged by the overwhelming popular reaction to a 1914 newspaper editorial by the Honorable John Temple Graves advocating a carving of Lee on the mountain, she approached sculptor Gutzon Borglum about her idea. Borglum visited the mountain and shocked Plane and the other UDC members by telling them that their idea would look ridiculous, like a postage stamp on the side of a barn. After several days on site, the sculptor offered an alternative proposal, suggesting a column of over 750 Confederate soldiers wrapping around the cliff, rather than a solitary Lee. The UDC eagerly agreed to the brave idea. Demonstrating their commitment to the carving, the UDC gained access to the site from Samuel Venable family in 1916 on a twelve year lease and formed the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association to raise money and oversee the project in the very next year.

During this period of planning and preparation after Plane's initial meeting with Borglum, the mountain witnessed the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. In November of 1915, William J. Simmons restarted the Klan on top of the mountain, burning a cross as a dramatic symbol of the groups return. The Klan supported the proposed carving wholeheartedly. In fact, both Borglum and Venable became active members in the Klan, giving the group a powerful inside line on the carving. The Klan continued to meet on the mountain after their first meeting, maintaining physical as well as political connections with the memorial.

After a brief delay caused by World War I, Borglum started work on the mountain in 1923, with the full support of the Klan, the UDC, the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association, and millions of white Southerners. The project represented the fruition of a generation's dream to honor and preserve the Confederate tradition.




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