“Old Joe,” the Confederate statue on Gainesville’s downtown square, almost wasn’t to be for a couple of reasons.
First, there was a movement to erect a statue in the square of Hall County’s namesake, Dr. Lyman Hall, one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence. That was in the summer of 1901. Secondly, at the same time there also was a movement to chop up the public square into business lots.
A Gainesville newspaper was outraged at the prospect of eliminating what little green space there was in the business district. “It is pretty generally conceded that the square ought to be diverted from its present undignified use as a hitching ground for country horses and mules, but that it should remain forever as a breathing place for the people few dispute,” the paper wrote. It quoted a resident as saying, “It would be worse than suicidal to sell the square and cut it up into business lots.”
“No! Sell not the square,” the newspaper eloquently intoned, “but improve it and preserve it, and making it a thing of beauty and a joy forever, cause our children and our children’s children to rise up and call us blessed long after our mortal bodies have been resolved back into their original element.”
The paper suggested the United Daughters of Confederacy erect a monument in memory of Lyman Hall. The UDC did erect a monument, of course, not to Lyman Hall, but a generic Confederate soldier in honor of all those who served for the South. “Old Joe,” as he is nicknamed, has stood since its unveiling in 1909.
Some mistakenly believe the statue is of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, who lived his later life in Gainesville. The UDC in recent years erected a statue of him on the site of his home place between Park Hill Drive and Longstreet Place.
The Confederate statue on the square has stood despite a tornado that destroyed most everything else around the square and occasional suggestions to move it or eliminate the square altogether. The square itself is owned by Hall County, though it is in the center of Gainesville. The UDC says the city can never own the property, nor can the county sell it to anybody or build on it. The organization has a perpetual 99-year lease on the plot on which the statue stands.
The Gainesville statue is among scores erected to honor the Confederate dead. Monuments in at least two counties, Gilmer and Union, pay tribute not only to Confederate soldiers, but to Union fighters from mountain counties who opposed the Confederacy.
Most Georgia counties have markers, statues or monuments honoring those who fought for the South. A marker on Ga. 105 near Baldwin honors volunteers who drilled near there. One in Dawson County on Ga. 9 pays tribute to those who served in all wars, including the Civil War. Likewise, a Veterans War Memorial in neighboring Forsyth County has a monument topped with bronze artifacts, such as a cap, canteen and bugle.
Many of the Confederate monuments are tall obelisks with a statue of a soldier standing on top.
In Jackson County, a soldier’s statue stood atop a column dedicated in 1911. But in 1940, during preparations for a speech by the postmaster general commemorating a stamp issued in honor of Dr. Crawford W. Long, the statue toppled to the ground. A Southern Cross of Honor replaced the statue. Long is credited with the first use of ether as an anesthetic.
Gould Hagler’s book, “Georgia’s Confederate Monuments,” (Mercer University Press, 2014) tells that story along with others about the various monuments, markers and other structures honoring the Civil War dead in Georgia counties. Hagler estimates more than 140 of them, though he says others honor a specific person, place or event.
Various organizations began erecting Confederate monuments shortly after the Civil War, and they continued into the 1920s. However, Sons of Confederate Veterans chapters started a new wave of monuments in the 1990s, and more are planned.
Today is the anniversary of the Confederates firing on federally held Fort Sumter, S.C., officially starting the war. Cooper Bennett Scott, who is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery, is said to have fired the first shot on the fort. Scott moved to Gainesville after the war.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.