Monday, July 19, 2010

Battle of Ezra Church and the 'New South'

A field trip to the site of the Battle of Ezra Church in western Atlanta requires imagination, a visit to the largest cemetery in the Southeastern United States and the reading of a biblical verse.

Interstate 20 slices through much of the battlefield. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Mozley Park and other residential streets and small homes stand where columns of gray troops vainly smashed into an entrenched Union force.

As in much of Atlanta, only historic markers tell of the Confederacy’s litany of woe in the vital city.

Sunday, we spent a couple of hours in Westview Cemetery, built in 1884, some 20 years after the July 28, 1864, fighting at Ezra Church. Many famous Georgians are among the 110,000 souls resting on 582 acres.

(If you make a visit, stop by the beautiful abbey-mausoleum in the back part of the property. It’s breathtaking.)

Rebel troops under Gens. Stephen D. Lee and Alexander P. Stewart, days after losses at Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta, pushed through what would become Westview as they made an attack at Ezra Church.

Previously, Union Gen. William T. Sherman had ordered Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard to move from the left wing to the right and cut Gen. John Bell Hood’s last railroad supply line between Atlanta and nearby East Point.

Hood moved to intercept the Federals and ordered the assault. Howard was ready for them and repulsed the Confederates after fierce fighting, inflicting more than 3,000 casualties compared to about 700 for the North. It was another costly Southern loss.

Westview includes a small section of trenches and a large monument of a soldier looking toward battle.

The inscription on the base speaks of peace, much it from Isaiah 2:4: "Nation shall not rise up against nation. They shall beat their swords into plough shares and their spears into pruning hooks. Neither shall they learn war anymore. Of Liberty born of a Patriots dream; of a storm cradled Nation that fell."

A semicircle of graves surrounds the memorial.

Interestingly, the graves are of white-bearded veterans who died in the early 20th century and the dawn of a new era in the South and Atlanta. Westview years ago allowed people of color to be buried on its grounds. The city became home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Morehouse College and other African-American institutions are only two miles away from Ezra Church.

The family of Henry Woodfin Grady, an orator and editor of The Atlanta Constitution, rests in a small crypt at Wesview.

Grady, who died at only 39 in 1889, believed in white supremacy but spoke of the need of the cooperation between races “because of a mutual appreciation of the rewards that lay ahead.”

He is remembered for pushing northern investment, Southern industrial growth and an important speech in New York in 1886.

"There was a South of slavery and secession - that South is dead. There is now a South of union and freedom - that South, thank God, is living, breathing, and growing every hour," he said.

See 1964 map superimposing Battle of Ezra Church over streets and highways.

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