[The following is a slightly modified version of the opening section of one of the research papers I wrote on Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery for the Exploring Place: History class that I took in 2007. The previous article in this series is here, and all my articles on Oakland are here.]
On the early evening of October 31, 2007, I sat on the ground among the graves of the Confederate soldiers in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, watching the late day sunlight change the headstone colors from white and gray to a soft, faded orange. Row after row of these headstones – many with names engraved on them, many without – stretched up the hill in front of me, and out in all directions among the trees and throughout the grass surrounding me. Off to the northwest side of the cemetery, beyond where I could see, a freight train coupled an engine to its cars and the air around me cracked as the train sections connected. The earth rumbled for several seconds – I could feel it and hear it – and then fell silent. A sharp, cold breeze struck the back of my neck as a handful of brittle magnolia leaves dropped from a tree nearby, drifting to the ground around one of the headstones without making a sound.
I had my camera with me, of course, since it seemed I couldn’t visit Oakland without taking my camera and have over a thousand pictures chronicling the time I’ve spent there. It took me a second to realize that I had started to take a picture and was holding the camera suspended in mid-air, halfway to my face when the explosive thunder from the train stopped me. I was holding my breath, and in those few seconds suddenly wondering about the meaning of this place where I sat on the ground, frozen stiff in the act of composing a photograph, staring at the Confederate gravestones.
I took a first shot, a wide shot of the field in front of me, showing countless stones glowing or submerged in long shadows, the inscriptions and the names and dates barely visible…
I zoomed in and took a second shot, and the words “Confederate States Army” started to show on many of the gravestones….
On the third shot, the names of men who died for the South in the Civil War could be clearly seen, yet there were dozens and dozens of them – too many to remember, too many for my mind to comprehend….
I took my fourth and final shot, a very close zoom, focusing on a single headstone near the trunk of the magnolia tree, where I saw just one inscription:
“T. Roberts, 23rd Alabama Infantry, Company I, Confederate States Army.”
I have no idea who T. Roberts was and will probably never know. I couldn’t even find out what the “T” stands for. He was not a prominent southern general whose importance will get his name mentioned on the Oakland Cemetery tours, or in the books written about Oakland or Atlanta or Georgia or the Civil War.
He was, however, one man, a single and irreplaceable individual, a person who once had a life that he lost during a war, whose name would not even be known to me but for the fact that he had lost it during that war. Yet for those few minutes on that Halloween evening, and for the time I spent wondering about who he might have been, or what he might have looked like, or what unbearable injuries he might have suffered before he died … we were connected across time and space, at a quickly shifting point where our lives – rather, his death and my life – intersected. And that, I realized, was the meaning and significance of this complex and amazing historical place.
In the first parts of my research into Oakland, I puzzled a little over the difference between a place like Oakland as an active element of a region’s history — that is, a place where historical events actually occurred — and as a more passive one because of its nature as a cemetery. As I continued my research, I became much less concerned with the difference between the two, having discovered that the difference didn’t matter that much. All historical places function in both ways: Oakland, in that sense, is no different than, say, the Georgia State Capitol, or a Civil War battlefield, or a historically significant factory like the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills — so the distinction I was trying to make between active and passive places became irrelevant. That Oakland’s configured as a place where people are buried and memorialized is simply a characteristic of the location itself, and isn’t nearly as important to studying its history as it might seem.
With that in mind, my research began to take a different approach to examining the cemetery and its history in more detail. Rather than attempting to localize events to the cemetery grounds themselves, I started using the cemetery as a focal point for some of the history of the surrounding area, including the neighborhoods and streets that geographically intersect with Oakland. While that seemed at first to point me toward coincidental renderings of historical circumstances and events, it soon became apparent that what it did instead was highlight Oakland’s history within the context of Atlanta’s history. It also enabled an exploration of the relationship between the cemetery and the city from several different perspectives – such as social structures, segregation, architectural symbolism, southern Victorian mores, and the political and economic histories of the area. With that as background, I began to explore Oakland as a historical focal point for the history of the community where I live, which I’ll discuss in more detail in my next article.