1 On the Trail of a Major Story

Walk a Mile in My Moccasins

Part 1

On the Trail of a Major Story

I lived in Rome for six years. Rome, Georgia, that is, about sixty miles northwest of Atlanta. (We have recently moved to Savannah.) After living for most of the first sixty years of my life in the frozen north, in Michigan, living Way Down South in Dixie has been an interesting experience. We are, indeed, in the Land of Cotton. The song says “Old times there are not forgotten.”

But that’s not always true.

Oh—not when it comes to the Glory Days of the Confederacy, of course! THOSE Old Times are definitely not forgotten. Ever. There are Civil War museums everywhere, battlefields to visit, planned “re-enactment” festivals.  And skip seeing Mount Rushmore…come on down and see Georgia’s Stone Mountain instead. We don’t have just big heads o’ famous guys.


We’ve got heads, bodies…and horses.

Well, it’s not too impressive from a long distance, because the mountain it is on is SO big. But in the right lighting and up a bit closer, it’s indeed quite a memorial.


The largest bas relief sculpture in the world, the Confederate Memorial Carving depicts three Confederate leaders of the Civil War, President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (and their favorite horses, “Blackjack”, “Traveller”, and “Little Sorrel”, respectively). The entire carved surface measures 3 acres (12,000 m2), about the size of two and a quarter football fields. The carving of the three men towers 400 feet (120 m) above the ground, measures 90 by 190 feet (58 m), and is recessed 42 feet (13 m) into the mountain. The deepest point of the carving is at Lee’s elbow, which is 12 feet (3.7 m) to the mountain’s surface.

The carving was conceived by Mrs. C. Helen Plane, a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The Venable family, owners of the mountain, deeded the north face of the mountain to the UDC in 1916. The UDC was given 12 years to complete a sizable Civil War monument. Gutzon Borglum was commissioned to do the carving. Borglum abandoned the project in 1923 (and later went on to begin Mount Rushmore). American sculptor Augustus Lukeman continued until 1928, when further work stopped for thirty years. In 1958, at the urging of Governor Marvin Griffin, the Georgia legislature approved a measure to purchase Stone Mountain for $1,125,000. In 1963, Walker Hancock was selected to complete the carving, and work began in 1964. The carving was completed by Roy Faulkner, who later operated a museum (now closed) on nearby Memorial Drive commemorating the carving’s history. The carving was considered complete on March 3, 1972.

I went with my family to see Stone Mountain a couple of summers ago. One thing I did notice at the popular tourist attraction was that there was no mention of a…darker side to the story.

Ku Klux Klan activities at Stone Mountain are deep-rooted, although the original conception of the memorial pre-dates the 1915 revival of the Klan. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan was emboldened by the release of D. W. Griffith’s Klan-glorifying film The Birth of a Nation, and by the lynching of Leo Frank, who was convicted in the murder of Mary Phagan. On November 25, 1915, a group of robed and hooded men met at Stone Mountain to create a new incarnation of the Klan. They were led by William J. Simmons, and they included a group calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan. A cross was lit, and the oath was administered by Nathan Bedford Forrest II, the grandson of the original Imperial Grand Wizard, Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, and was witnessed by the owner of Stone Mountain, Samuel Venable.

Fundraising for the monument resumed in 1923, and in October of that year, Venable granted the Klan easement with perpetual right to hold celebrations as they desired. The influence of the United Daughters of the Confederacy continued, in support of Mrs. Plane’s vision of a carving explicitly for the purpose of creating a Confederate memorial. The UDC established the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association (SMCMA) for fundraising and on-site supervision of the project. Venable and Borglum, who were both closely associated with the Klan, arranged to pack the SMCMA with Klan members. The SMCMA, along with the United Daughters of the Confederacy continued fundraising efforts. Of the $250,000 raised, part came from the federal government, which in 1924 issued special fifty-cent coins with the soldiers Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on them, but would not allow the politician Jefferson Davis to be included.

But I digress.

Back to the Civil War.

On one of the main routes to get from Rome to Chattanooga, about sixty miles straight north, you drive right through the famous Chickamauga Battlefield, which you can’t miss! It’s part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park that also includes Lookout Mountain Battlefield and Missionary Ridge. On my first trip from Rome to Chattanooga on that route I was astonished to see why you can tell it is a famous battlefield, even without signs telling you that you have entered that area.


There are monuments scattered everywhere in the fields and woods, some of them relatively small, some of them very imposing.

The National Park Service notes:

There are 705 commemorative features including monuments, markers, and tablets, spread across the units of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.  Veterans began marking the battlefields in 1894 and the last commemorative feature was added in 1976.

Seems like everyone involved wanted to make sure “old times (even sad/bad times) there are not forgotten”! Samples:

First Wisconsin

first wisconsin

13th Michigan

13th michigan

Fifteenth US Infantry

15th us infantryFlorida


If you want to, you can get a “Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail” brochure, and do your own Civil War heritage sightseeing in Northwest Georgia (and over the border near Chattanooga), with famous sites pinpointed for you all the way from Chattanooga to Atlanta.


Yes, the South is more than proud of its Civil War and Antebellum history! (“ante”: before, “bellum”: war…the Civil War, of course. Even though, technically, they lost that war. “Save your Confederate money, boys—the South’s gonna rise again…”) The lovely Georgia mansions of the 1939 classic movie Gone With the Wind … Scarlett’s Tara and Ashley’s Twelve Oaks…were antebellum mansions.


12 oaks movie matte

You can still see some of these antebellum beauties in Georgia, but they are more scarce in some parts of the state than others. The architecture of some areas suffered more than others during the military campaigns of the Union armies through the south, including Sherman’s march that included a lot of pillaging and burning “from Atlanta to the Sea.”

Just as an aside, “Tara” never existed as an actual mansion anywhere. The movie version was only a façade on the back lot at MGM studios, and evidently wasn’t based on any particular “real world” mansion in Georgia at all. By 1950, it was a crumbling façade, as you can see in this picture.

tara backlot 1950

Gone With the Wind book author Margaret Mitchell was reportedly glad it crumbled. She was irritated at how little the characteristics of the Tara in the movie lined up with those of the Tara she had lovingly and meticulously described in her book.

The movie’s “Twelve Oaks” wasn’t even a façade. The picture above, the only one in the movie that shows a “full view” of the mansion, is a matte painting incorporated into the filming. However, it was based on a real mansion, this one, still standing and lookin’ good, in Covington, Georgia.

real 12 oaks covington

It seems that my location in Rome was pretty significant during the Civil War. In May 1864 the city was attacked by Union forces and captured. Then…

On November 10th, 1864, General Sherman issued orders from a home in downtown Rome to General John Corse, “tonight destroy all public property not needed by your command, all foundries, mills, workshops, warehouses, railroad depots, or other storehouses convenient to the railroad, together with all wagon shops, tanneries or other factories useful to the enemy.  Destroy all bridges immediately, then move your command to Kingston.” Many contemporary reports agree that Fort Norton was among the first destroyed.

Rome was burned on November 10, 1864, thus marking the beginning of Sherman’s March to the Sea. (http://romegeorgia.org/civil-war/history/)

So actually the fiery march wasn’t from “Atlanta to the Sea” but from “Rome to the Sea”!

But they didn’t burn down all the mansions in Rome, and a few are still standing including this lovely one, built in about 1832 by one of the founders of Rome, and dubbed “Alhambra.”


Actually, while I lived in Rome, I never bothered to drive over to the private k-12 Darlington Boarding School campus where this mansion has for years been the home for whoever was currently president of the school.

But in summer 2012, I decided to visit one of the other few antebellum mansions in the city. It now houses a museum, and my daughter had visited it earlier and suggested I’d find the tour interesting. It was only about four miles from my house, inside the city limits.

I drove down a parkway until I saw the Rome Braves baseball stadium on my left and the Fuddrucker’s restaurant on my right, and turned right. Just down the road around a sharp curve, there was the museum. Even though I’d been to Fuddrucker’s a number of times, and driven right past the museum, I’d never even realized what it was. It is so close after the curve, and sets at an angle on the property so you don’t see the front, that you can blink and miss it.

You wouldn’t expect to find an antebellum plantation home right down the street from Fuddrucker’s, and across the street from the City School Bus barn! But there it is.

ridge home

Walking behind the building, you can see the lovely grounds sloping down toward the nearby Oostanaula River, and if you’d let your mind wander, you can almost see the ghosts of Dixie wandering the grounds.


Records show Major Ridge, original builder and owner of this home and plantation, had

  • 1141 peach trees
  • 418 apple trees
  • 280 acres under cultivation
  • a ferry
  • a store
  • 30 black slaves
  • other slaves including Creek (Indian) captives

Ridge had acquired the land in about 1820, and had at first built a log cabin there for his family. As he prospered, he eventually did renovations to turn the shell of the cabin into the foundation for a proper southern plantation house.

stairwayThe family ferry business, taking area folks across the wide Oostanaula, was particularly prosperous.


Right down the road from the museum to this day is a popular area known as Ridge Ferry Park.

The owner of the mansion had been known as “Major Ridge” since the time in 1814 when he had fought under Andrew Jackson in the Creek War. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (Alabama) in 1814, considered part of the War of 1812, Ridge had led forces which were “a decisive factor in the defeat of the Creeks.” General Jackson awarded Ridge for his bravery with the rank of major.

As a prosperous plantation owner, Major Ridge had high aspirations for his only son, John, and sent him at age 17 to a seminary in Connecticut.

john ridge

The school had been founded for the purpose of preparing young men to become “missionaries, preachers, translators, teachers, and health workers.” The school had high standards and a rigorous curriculum.

The students followed a demanding schedule befitting the devout mission of the school, doing field work in the time unoccupied by their mandatory church attendance, prayer, and 7 hours of daily coursework. The program of study included astronomy, calculus, theology, geography, chemistry, navigation and surveying, French, Greek, and Latin, in addition to practical courses such as blacksmithing and coopering.  (Wiki)

John did well with his studies, and came home with a strong education… and a wife.

Suffering from a problem with his hip, [John Ridge] was nursed for two years in the home of John P. Northrup, steward of the school; this led to his marriage to Sarah Bird Northrup in 1824.

Yes, Major Ridge had all the trappings of the life of a prosperous Southern Gentleman, just like Gerald O’Hara of Tara, or Ashley Wilkes of Twelve Oaks. Including the stylish clothes of the time.

In the 1830s, men wore dark coats, light trousers, and dark cravats for daywear.

For instance, here’s someone famous from that time period, dressed in that latest of fashion. Can you guess who?


That’s Davy Crockett, minus his coonskin cap! This would be how he dressed when he was a congressman in Washington during the 1830s.

Actually, Major Ridge also had opportunities to mingle with famous men in Washington, and as you can see by this portrait of him from the 1830s, he was right in style for such events with his dark coat, dark cravat (and white shirt with a tall… very tall …collar!)

major ridge

There’s just one teensy little thing I haven’t told you yet. You might not guess it just by looking at his portrait unless you have a keen eye for such things, but no one had to guess it back in the 1830s. Even with Major Ridge’s stylish coat and very tall collar and dark cravat. They knew right away.

Major Ridge was a Cherokee Indian.

His real name in the Cherokee language was Ka-Nun-Tah-Kla-Gee, meaning “The Man Who Walks on the Mountain Top.” This was simplified to his English name, “The Ridge,” in English. (Finally he became Major Ridge once he’d gotten his promotion from Andrew Jackson.)

And therein lies a tale you might say is about “the most famous Native American I’ll bet you’ve never heard of.”

We’ll continue on the trail of that tale in the next entry in this series.

Livin’ the American Dream

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