Today there is not much tangible Civil War history in Atlanta, its battlefields largely paved over and few antebellum buildings surviving the war. Yet Atlanta has something unique: an Eternal Flame of the Confederacy.
The term “Eternal Flame” conjures up images of somber and imposing memorials, like the Eternal Peace Memorial at Gettysburg, President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery, or the one at Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave (a mile from the site of the Confederacy’s). An enteral flame commemorates a person or concept in perpetuity. Across the country eternal flames commemorate veterans and military service, freedom and liberty, even victims of the Titanic.
It may surprise readers to learn that the Confederacy had an Enteral Flame too. Created 100 years ago this year in Atlanta, it has had an interesting history. The memorial was established at the local, grassroots level, and was not part of a wider movement that drew support from across the South. Yet it does speak to memory and commemoration at the time in Georgia’s largest city. It is also an unusual memorial, created from an ordinary item.
Atlanta installed 50 gaslights in 1855, and they were first lit at Christmas that year. Like many other cities across the nation, Atlanta could point to city street lights fueled by gas as a sign of progress and prosperity.
In July, 1864 Union forces under General William T. Sherman closed in on the city. On the 22nd, Union artillery began bombarding the city from the east. The shelling continued for weeks, with over 30,000 rounds screaming into the town.
On August 9, a Union shell struck a lamppost on Alabama Street, injuring Solomon Luckie, a free African American barber- the first civilian casualty of the fighting. Luckie’s leg was amputated but he died a few hours later.
Solomon Luckie (Atlanta History Center)
The lamppost survived the war, and became a local landmark with its battle damage. Over the years it was moved several times, including for a time to the Underground Atlanta entertainment and retail area.
In 1919 various groups created the Eternal Flame of the Confederacy, placing a plaque on the battle scarred lamppost. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, Old Guard militia, and the United Confederate Veterans chose this simple artifact, a part of the street landscape, for their memorial. The inscription reads: “Erected under the auspices of the Old Guard and Atlanta Chapter U.D.C. A.D. 1919 in memory of Andrew J. West. Beloved citizen Captain C.S.A.-General U.C.V.”
Detail of the plaque on the lamppost.
“The damage at the base of this lamp post was caused by a shell during the War Between the States, Battle of Atlanta July 22, 1864.”
That was it: a simple lamppost with a small plaque, hardly noticeable to by passers. In 1939 it was rededicated and another small plaque was added, part of a larger effort to commemorate the war. That December Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta, thus the monument has ties to another interpretation of the conflict. The new plaque, added 74 years after the war, states:
“The Eternal Flame of the Confederacy Lighted during the “Gone With the Wind” festivities, December 14, 1939 by the Old Guard Battalion of the City Gate Guard.”
Plaque dedicated in 1939.
Gone With the Wind reignited passion and interest in the conflict that reduced Atlanta to rubble. Actress Anne Rutherford, who played Scarlett’s sister Carreen, visited Confederate veterans at the soldier’s home. All of the major actors in the film toured the famous “Cyclorama” painting, then located at Grant Park (No… not named for that Grant).
A festive atmosphere permeated the city, and events included a parade down Peachtree Street with three hundred thousand people as “Dixie” played. Confederate flags waved in the breeze and Rebel yells echoed through the streets.
A highlight of the event was the lighting of the Eternal Flame of the Confederacy. Mrs. Thomas J. Ripley, President of Atlanta Chapter No. 18 United Daughters of the Confederacy, re-lit the light with the assistance of T. Guy Woolford, Commandant of the Old Guard militia.
What did this eternal flame mean to those city residents who went to the trouble to establish it? Like any eternal flame memorial, it served to recall the sacrifices and loss of the war, and was intended to be a constant reminder, an eternal reminder, of Atlanta’s role in the conflict.
Original location of the lamppost on Alabama Street.
While it was a reminder, it was a quiet and unobtrusive one. Being a simple lamppost, it was largely under the radar and blended into the city landscape. The Eternal Flame of the Confederacy was not highly visible. During the mid-2010s it did generate some online petitions, but saw no major protests on the level seen at other cities.
The man mentioned by the plaque, Andrew J. West, served with the 41st Georgia. He was later a staff officer with the Army of Tennessee, and served all through the conflict until the bitter end at Greensboro, N.C. West was active in United Confed Veterans after war and died in 1917, just two years before the monument’s dedication.
Andrew J. West.
In time it came to be the last surviving antebellum lamppost in the city. It was moved to stand near City Hall until 1880, then sent back to its original location, where the monument was dedicated in 1919 and rededicated for the 1939 for Gone With the Wind release. In the 1980s it went below ground, standing near the restrooms of a MARTA railroad station in the city’s Underground Atlanta retail area. In 2017 it was deaccessioned by city moved to the Atlanta History Center, where it has a prominent place in a Civil War exhibit.