Georgia On My Mind – Road Trip Part II: Stone Mountain a Confederate Memorial

My road trip around the state of Georgia continues…

georgia USA road map peach
Georgia on my mind


Not far outside of Atlanta is Stone Mountain, the largest exposed granite monolith in the world. It has the tourist oriented trappings of a small family friendly amusement park of sorts but I avoided all that and just enjoyed the view. Although it has always been a scenic destination, the mountain was used as a granite quarry from the 1830’s until 1958 when the government of Georgia purchased it.

Stone Mountain Georgia
Stone Mountain
Stone mountain
Very scenic

On one side of the mountain is an impressive bas-relief carving that is a memorial to the Confederate states (this is the deep south after all) and represents Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his leading US Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The carving sits 122 metres / 400 feet above the ground, measures 3 acres and the carving of the men alone is 27 by 58 metres / 90 by 190 feet which makes it larger than Mt. Rushmore! The size of the carving is very deceptive and does not look anywhere near that big when you stand below it but apparently the workers who carved the stone could easily stand inside a horse’s mouth to seek shelter from a sudden rain shower!

Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Davis Lee Stonewall Georgia
Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his leading US Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
Stone Mountain Georgia USA Confederate Memorial
Confederate memorial

The idea for the carving began in 1915 but due to funding issues and World War One, work did not begin until 1923. The project was started by sculptor Gutzon Borglum but in 1925 a dispute between him and the Stone Mountain Monumental Association resulted in his departure (he went on to carve Mt. Rushmore). Sculptor Augustus Lukeman took over the project but by 1928 (the original completion date) funds had run out and only the head of General Lee had been fully completed. It was not until 1964 under the state government that work began again on the project. New sculptor Walker Kirkland Hancock took over the project and by 1972 it was finally complete! It took nearly 50 years but it is an impressive and highly detailed piece of work.

Carving Stone Mountain 1928 Georgia
Carving Stone Mountain 1928 (Photo Source: Atlanta History Centre)
The Confederate Memorial 2014 Bas Relief Stone Mountain Georgia
The Confederate Memorial 2014


President of the Confederate States of America - Jefferson Davis in 1861
President of the Confederate States of America – Jefferson Davis in 1861 (Photo Source: US National Archives)

Jefferson Davis (1808 – 1889) was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865 (the seat of the Confederate government was in Richmond, Virginia). Prior to this he had served in the US military (graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1828, fought in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Mexican-American War of 1846 – 1848), had been a plantation owner (and slave owner) and served in the US Congress (House of Representatives briefly in 1845 and the Senate 1847-1853 and again from 1857-1861).

In 1853 Jefferson Davis was appointed as U.S. Secretary of War. He returned to the Senate in 1857 but resigned from this post in January 21st,1861 when Mississippi ceded from the Union (this was the state he was raised in and represented in Congress). Ultimately as the southern states ceded from the Union and divided the nation, the bloody US Civil War began (1861-1865). The tide of war turned against the Confederates and the remnants of their Government had to flee from Virginia. Davis was captured by Union troops in Georgia on May 9th, 1865, spending the next 2 years in prison back in Virginia.

Following his release in May 1867 Jefferson Davis travelled Europe with his family before returning to the south where he lived out most of his years in retirement in Tennessee and Mississippi (they tried to return him to the US Senate but he was ineligible due to the fact he had never sought a formal pardon from the US Government for his role in the Civil War). He became an author and wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881). He passed away in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 6th, 1889.


General Robert E. Lee officer of the Confederate Army 1862
General Robert E. Lee officer of the Confederate Army 1862 (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

General Robert E. Lee (1807 – 1870) a Virginian, was a great military leader of the Confederate states. He had graduated second in his class at West Point in 1829 but most of his early career was in a non combat role spending 17 years with the Corps of Engineers as an officer overseeing the building of defensive coastal fortresses. In 1846 he proved himself in combat during the Mexican War where he was awarded three brevets for gallantry and promoted to the rank of Colonel. From 1852 to 1855 he returned to West Point to serve as superintendent of the military academy. Here Lee helped train men who would later serve under and against him in the US Civil War.

Lee’s last posting in the US army was with the cavalry, where he served until 1861. He was so respected in the US military that President Abraham Lincoln offered him command of the Union army in April 1861 but he refused as Virginia had just ceded from the Union and he would not fight his own people.

Lee then accepted the rank of General in the Confederate army instead and after his first battle he served as a military advisor to President Davis until he was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862. This went on to be the most successful Confederate army and was involved in famous battles such as Antietam (1862 – a bloody stalemate), Chancellorsville (1863 – his greatest victory) and Gettysburg (1863 – defeat). These battles ended in various results but established Lee’s reputation as a great military leader.

The Battle of Chancellorsville 1863
The Battle of Chancellorsville 1863 (From Frank Leslie’s Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War)

The Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the war and Lee’s Union rival General Ulysses S. Grant had the upper hand for the rest of the war (Grant later became the 18th President of the United States from 1869 – 1877). Confederate President Davis announced Lee as General-in-Chief of all Confederate forces in February 1865. Just two months later on April 9th, 1865 Lee surrendered following a defeat in the battle of Appomattox Court House. This more or less ended the war and ended his military career. Lee returned home to Virginia and saw out his days as President of Washington College.


General "Stonewall" Jackson's  "Chancellorsville" portrait taken at a Spotsylvania County farm on April 26th, 1863 Confederate Civil War
General “Stonewall” Jackson’s “Chancellorsville” portrait taken at a Spotsylvania County farm on April 26th, 1863 (Photo Source: US National Archives)

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (1824 – 1863) graduated from West Point in 1846 and served in the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848) where he met Robert E. Lee and through his military success was promoted to the rank of Major but in 1851 left the military to teach at the Virginia Military Institute. He remained at the school until the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861.

He assumed an immediate role in the Confederate army, first as a Colonel and then Brigadier General. His military prowess was highlighted with a victory at the first major battle of the war at First Manassas in Virginia on July 21st, 1861 (First Battle of Bull Run to the Union army). He was in command of an inexperienced group of Virginian troops that managed to stand their ground and hold off Union troops until a Confederate counter attack could be launched to win the battle. This is where the nickname of “Stonewall” originated from and also helped establish his legend within the Confederate army.

In 1862 Jackson had more successes in battles in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and in the defence of Richmond. He was instrumental in capturing a Union supply depot in the victory at the battle of Second Manassas in August 1862 and had success in the stalemate Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Following this battle he became a Lieutenant General. More Confederate victories followed at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in May 1863. Jackson and his successful military manoeuvres were instrumental in both.

First Manassas 1861 (First Battle of Bull Run) where the "Stonewall" Jackson legend began (chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison)
First Manassas 1861 (First Battle of Bull Run) where the “Stonewall” Jackson legend began (chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison)

Unfortunately following this last victory at Chancellorsville, Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops whilst conducting reconnaissance. He had to have his arm amputated as a result and just 10 days later died due to complications from the surgery (you can imagine how primitive the surgery process was back in those days). Not the way a military legend should have gone. His death came at a significant time when the Confederates were having much success on the battlefield and he was instrumental along with General Lee in achieving these victories. Its unlikely even “Stonewall” could have helped lead them to ultimate victory but his role is not forgotten and his likeness deserves to be on the side of Stone Mountain.

Friendly fire resulted in the death of "Stonewall" Jackson in 1863
Friendly fire resulted in the death of “Stonewall” Jackson in 1863


I hiked the trail that steadily ascends to the top of Stone Mountain which stands at 251 metres / 825 feet above the terrain below and 514 metres / 1,686 feet above sea level (there is a cable car for those less so inclined). The hike is hot work but well worth it and you also get a much better perspective on how big the mountain really is (there is also a path around the base of the mountain which is 8 kilometres / 5 miles in circumference).

stone mountain georgia hike
Half way there
hiking trail stone mountain georgia
Top of the trail
The top of Stone Mountain
The top of Stone Mountain
Granite stone mountain
Plenty of Granite!

Take note of the graffiti carved into the stone as you make your way up the trail. Normally I am not a big fan of this but some of these carvings date back to the 1800’s and are incredibly neatly done. An interesting glimpse of sorts into the past.

1879 graffiti Stone mountain georgia USa
1879 graffiti

Once up there you are rewarded with an impressive 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside and the Atlanta skyline off in the distance. There are also some food and restroom facilities near the cable car. It’s nice to sit in the shade under one of the few small trees up there and enjoy that view before heading back down the mountain trail.

Stone Mountain view Georgia
Hazy but still a great view across Georgia
stone mountain cable car
The cable car to the top
stone mountain
Quite the drop off!
Stone Mountain
The carving is below this point
Stone Mountain Georgia
You can see why it was an ideal source of rock for a quarry for so many years!
shade tree stone mountain
A shady spot to relax


Afterwards I discovered that Stone Mountain has a chequered past involving the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a racist right-wing group that originally started in the south on December 24th, 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee following the Civil War but had died out by 1874. On November 25th, 1915 William J. Simmons (1880 – 1945) founded the reborn Ku Klux Klan in a ceremony atop Stone Mountain with 15 others (most of the founders of the new KKK were from Atlanta). Simmons declared himself the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan! Simmons had seen the 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation which glorified the first KKK and he decided to restart the organization. The group gained significant strength again by the 1920’s when hundreds of thousands of people joined across the nation to rally against immigrants, blacks and anyone who wasn’t a native-born Anglo-Saxon or Celtic protestant.

New Klan members march in lock step up to the Klan's big altar on Stone Mountain in Georgia, 1946
New Klan members march in lock step up to the Klan’s big altar on Stone Mountain in 1946 (Photographer: Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan used to meet and hold ceremonies on Stone Mountain from 1915 to 1958 (they had an agreement with the family that owned it). Imagine the scene of white-robed, hooded men and boys burning crosses and you get the picture (the burning crosses were inspired by the movie and not something the original KKK did). Bigotry in the south did not fade away too easily it seems. When the government of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain in 1958 they condemned their structures at the top and kicked the KKK out! Despite this, the group still exists nationally today in what is known as its third incarnation.

Ku Klux Klan members stand by a burning cross on Stone Mountain in May 1946
Ku Klux Klan members stand by a burning cross on Stone Mountain in May 1946 (Photographer: Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Despite that interesting interlude in history, Stone Mountain is a great day trip from Atlanta. At night they do some sort of laser light show on the carving. I did not see this but I am sure it is spectacular. Either way I recommend a visit to the mountain and don’t miss out on the journey to the top!

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