Civil War 150th: Are we too busy to remember?

The 150th anniversary of the burning of Atlanta by Union Gen. William T. Sherman will occur in September. Atlanta appears to have little in the way of a comprehensive commemoration of this Civil War event. We are missing a big opportunity.

Atlanta played a crucial role in the war as a railway hub and supply center. The capture of the city boosted the morale of the Union and arguably contributed to President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. Atlanta seems to do little to commemorate this important role, and when it does, it is often in a manner that panders to crass commercialism.

Recently, as a middle school teacher in Peachtree City, I attended a Gilder Lehrman Institute seminar in Richmond, Va., focusing on the role of the South in American history. As the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond has taken the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War as an opportunity to celebrate those historical events in a dignified manner that is inclusive of the contributions of free and enslaved persons, women, Jews and other often-nominalized groups.

In stark contrast, many of Atlanta’s commemorative venues offer a Barnum and Baileyesque view of the conflict that tore a nation apart.

For example, Stone Mountain, the side of which has a Mount Rushmore-like carving of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, routinely offers nighttime shows in which laser images of iconic Southern images are flashed onto these figures while country and pop music tunes blare.

Underground Atlanta is a five-block stretch of some of Atlanta’s oldest buildings, built downtown during Reconstruction. A concrete viaduct built in the 1920s to allow a better flow of traffic elevated the street one level above these structures, completely obscuring them.

Instead of mining the potentially rich history of this rediscovered area, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, the city sanctioned creating in Underground what basically amounts to a carnival midway of shops, bars, eateries and other amusements.

Contrast this with examples of Richmond’s approach to honoring the past: programs at battlefields, historic houses, museums, archives and cemeteries as well as interpretive trails and walking tours that tell the stories of all involved — men, women and children — whether black or white, free or enslaved, Union or Confederate.

Why, then, does Atlanta often choose to trivialize such historical events, if it chooses to present these events at all? The cooperation between Atlanta’s white and black leaders averted much of the violence that occurred in other major cities during the civil rights era, when Atlanta touted itself as the city “too busy to hate.” Is it possible that as regards the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Atlanta is the city too busy to remember?

Barbara James is an 8th grade language arts and gifted language arts teacher at Rising Starr Middle School in Peachtree City.

For the AJC’s Civil War coverage, go to: