Day One: Stone Mountain

StoneMountainStatuesPart three in a series

Stonewall Jackson has always loomed large in my family’s life. He’s the reason Stephanie fell in love with the Civil War back when she was four, and her love affair dragged us all with it. It’s been going on now for seventeen years.

Now he looms over us quite literally—fifty feet tall, 400 feet above us—on the granite face of Stone Mountain.

Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are up there, too. To Steph, they’re sidebars (even Lee). She’s here to see Stonewall Jackson in all his larger-than-life glory.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, so Stone Mountain Park is packed. We spend as much time looking for a parking space as we spent getting here. The GPS, obviously programmed by a Yankee, keeps pronouncing “Robert E. Lee Drive” as “Robert Ely.”

We finally find a spot—one that even comes with shade—and then we hike back toward the museum. In the Southern summer sun, we feel a little like Jackson’s Foot Cavalry.

We’re dutiful marchers, though, and the hope of a little air condition gives us added incentive. By this point, I’ve been awake going on thirty-two hours, so when we sit down in the museum’s theater to watch “The Men Who Carved the Mountain,” the air conditioning quickly puts me to sleep.

By the end of the second film, “The Civil War in Georgia,” I’m on the march again, this time with echoes of Sherman in my ears.

Outside, the park feels like a boardwalk, with food stands, drink stands, ice cream stands, and several gift shops. I’ve also seen a restaurant, a concert pavilion, a golf course, a bird sanctuary, a railroad (yes, a railroad!), and a cable car trip to the mountaintop. At $10, it’s tempting to buy a ticket, but the line looks longer than the cable to to the top, so we opt out.

StoneMountainLawnInstead, we walk across the great terraced lawn down toward the railroad tracks. Across the tracks is a smaller lawn and a pool where a lonely paddleboat attendant floats in a blue boat, waiting for customers. There are also tubes sticking out of the water that turn out to be flame throwers—part of the pyrotechnic laser show that will light up the mountain after dusk. Someone starts testing the tubes, which belch tongues of flame skyward. “Fire in the hole!” I shout.

We’re not staying long enough to catch tonight’s show, but plenty of people have already begun staking out space on the lawn in advanced preparation. Blankets and coolers and even a few pop-up canopies. A father and daughter toss a Nerf football. Someone else is tossing Frisbee. Folks seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Along the pond’s edge, we all look up at the Confederate Holy Trinity. Lee’s upper lip looks stern. Davis, positioned behind Lee, is literally thrust into the background by him. Jackson ride behind, sternfaced and awesome.

StoneMountainWork on the Confederate Memorial Carving—as it’s officially called—began in conception in 1912. Initially, seven figures were to make up the carving, but work went slow. By 1925, only Lee’s head was finished. The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had a falling out with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had commissioned him to do the project, so he left, taking all his notes and sketches with him. Work on the project stalled shortly thereafter. (Gutzon later went on to carve Mt. Rushmore.)

The state of Georgia bought the mountain in 1958, and 1964, work resumed, finally wrapping up with an official dedication by Vice-President Spiro Agnew in 1970. Final touches went on until 1972.

The sculpture is ninety feet tall and 190 feet wide—more than three acres—making it the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world. It’s bigger than a football field.

Coolest “fun fact”: Most of the mountain was carved with jet torches.

But the history of Stone Mountain hasn’t been all Parks & Rec. The Ku Klux Klan in Georgia once held a huge “back in business” rally in the mountain’s shadow, complete with cross burnings. That kind of racial antagonism has dogged Confederate heritage, which is complicated enough because of slavery, making it all the harder for folks today to have meaningful discussions about race. Still, I can’t imagine that Lee and Jackson, both slaveholders, would have looked down on that kind of hatred with favor.

We stare at the figures for a long time. “Pretty nifty,” Steph finally says.

There stands Jackson like a stone mountain.

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