Atlanta city fathers purchased six acres in 1850 to be a public burial ground for a young but fast-growing town that already had a population of more than 2,500. It was designed in the age of the rural movement, a Victorian innovation inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts, which was conceived as an alternative to traditional graveyards which often were crowded and aesthetically unappealing.
Originally called Atlanta Graveyard or City Burial Place, Oakland was renamed in 1872. By then it had expanded to 48 acres, mainly due to pressures of the Civil War. During the war, the City and the Confederate government added land to bury soldiers who died in local hospitals. As fighting drew closer and engulfed Atlanta, more burial space was needed. After the war, space was added to provide a proper final resting place for soldiers who had been hastily buried on area battlefields. By 1867 the cemetery reached its present size.
There were two historical events within Oakland that illustrate its connections with the tumultuous events of the Civil War:
In 1862, Union operatives known as Andrews Raiders commandeered a locomotive at present-day Kennesaw and raced north to cut telegraph lines. They were captured and condemned as spies. Seven were hanged near Oakland’s southeast corner and buried in the cemetery before removal to the National Cemetery at Chattanooga.
Additionally, on the high ground north of the cemetery’s Bell Tower, a two-story farmhouse stood in the summer of 1864. It served as headquarters for Confederate commander John B. Hood during the Battle of Atlanta, which was fought to the east of the cemetery on July 22nd.
The Confederate portion of Oakland is home to an estimated 6,900 burials, of which about 3,000 are unknown. Several large military hospitals in the area were very close to Oakland Cemetery during the war years. There are 16 marked graves of Union soldiers interred alongside Confederate soldiers. This practice was unusual for the time and was probably a result of dwindling burial space. The area is marked by a large monument known as the Confederate Obelisk.
There is a Jewish section at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta with monuments and headstones that reflect the blending of the German Jewish culture of which the the local Hebrew Benevolent Congregation was primarily comprised, and the American culture that the community had adopted. This is in marked contrast to the Jewish section’s earlier years when members of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue were Oakland Cemetery’s prime Jewish residents. Many of these immigrants were Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who were intent on preserving their culture. This is made clear by the gravesites of members of this Synagogue, which are singular in their use of Hebrew inscriptions and engravings of traditional Jewish symbols.
The Black section of Oakland Cemetery is a lasting reminder of the era of segregation in the American South. Here many of the gravesites lack headstones, monuments and grave markers in general. This is because many markers here were made of wood and other less durable materials. Those grave markers have succumbed to the passing of time and as a result have rendered a large portion of the gravesites in the black section unknown. Despite the social difficulties that had to be overcome by African-Americans living in the Southern states at the time, there are several outstanding black figures buried at Oakland who made significant contributions to the history of Atlanta. These include Reverend Frank Quarles, Bishop Wesley John Gaines, Carrie Steele Logan, and Antoine Graves, the owner of the only mausoleum in the black section.
Potter’s Field is an area that is traditionally designated for burial of those without the means to purchase a plot of land. By 1884 all of the traditional plots at Oakland Cemetery had been sold. This meant that the only options for burial at Oakland were to either buy a plot from a private owner or be buried in Potter’s Field, and records show that many people chose the latter. Like the Black section, Potter’s Field has a dearth of traditional headstones and many of those buried here remain unknown. A 1978 archaeological survey conducted by Georgia State University that revealed the entire area to be occupied by an estimated 17,000 persons.
In the late 19th Century, Oakland was a popular destination for Sunday carriage rides and picnics. Families tended the plots of loved ones, creating an assortment of lovely gardens. Atlanta’s first greenhouse was established here in 1870. Many distinctions of daily life were maintained in death, as African Americans were buried apart from whites and Jewish sections were separate from Christian.
As the 20th Century unfolded, Oakland increasingly was surrounded by residential and industrial development. The cemetery also was filling up. The last sites were sold in 1884. With the passage of time, many graves went unattended as descendents moved away or lost touch with their antecedents. Oakland fell into serious disrepair from neglect and occasional vandalism.
Historic Oakland Foundation was founded in 1976, the same year Oakland was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Working with the City, the Foundation has done much to stabilize the cemetery.
Some notables laid to rest in Oakland include Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell, golf legend Bobby Jones, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens and a number of generals, governors and religious leaders.
Here is a beautifully done video montage of some of the monuments and gravestones at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta: