Saturday, April 4, 2015

Utoy Cemetery now on National Register; group mapping graves, plans database

Radar survey last summer found additional unmarked graves

Only six years ago, one of Atlanta’s oldest burial grounds was so overgrown that passers-by could hardly tell that it was a cemetery containing hundreds of graves.

A dedicated group of volunteers has since toiled to keep Utoy Cemetery, which includes the remains of nearly three dozen Civil War soldiers, an appropriate resting spot. They are in the middle of a ground-penetrating radar and mapping project to inform them of the location of graves and, eventually, to build a database of graves and names.

The Utoy Cemetery Association’s dream of making the cemetery more well-known was recently buoyed by the site’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The Utoy Cemetery and the Civil War Battle of Utoy Creek have long not been recognized for their historical provenance,” said Malcolm McDuffie, vice president of operations for the nonprofit association. “Hopefully, our National Register listing will help change that.”

(All photos: Utoy Cemetery Association)

During the Atlanta Campaign in summer 1864, Confederates forces established a hospital at Utoy Church (also known as Utoy Baptist and Utoy Primitive Baptist) and the cemetery behind battle lines. The church, which moved to its current location in 1828, is next to the cemetery that holds the graves of at least one Revolutionary War and two War of 1812 veterans.

An estimated 300-350 people, likely including slaves, former slaves and Native Americans, are buried at the southwest Atlanta site, near the intersection of Venetian and Cahaba drives. A Pentecostal congregation now worships at the church building.

“The GPR (ground-penetrating radar) confirmed many grave locations we suspected from sunken graves and those marked with fieldstones,” McDuffie told the Picket. “In all, 150 unmarked graves were found.” There are approximately 190 marked graves.

The survey found in the southwest quadrant many unmarked graves. “There were several rows of evenly spaced graves, divided by an evenly spaced and straight walkway. This suggests military burials,” McDuffie said. “Whether Confederate or Union soldiers, no one knows. Both were treated at the Utoy Church during the Battle of Utoy Creek, and it was thought that all the Union soldiers had all been moved to Marietta (the national cemetery, in 1866).”

Malcolm McDuffie makes a presentation at cemetery

The Battle of Utoy Creek occurred when Union Gen. William T. Sherman, fresh off three major victories against Gen. John Bell Hood, tried to complete the job of taking the vital Southern city. Sherman extended his right flank to hit the railroad between East Point and Atlanta.

“A delay allowed the Rebels to strengthen their defenses with abatis, which slowed the Union attack when it restarted on the morning of August 6th,” according to the National Park Service summary of the fight at Utoy Creek. “The Federals were repulsed with heavy losses by Bate’s Division and failed in an attempt to break the railroad.”

James Boynton
Among those treated at the field hospital was Col. James S. Boynton, commander of the 30th Georgia Infantry. He later became a politician and judge and briefly served as Georgia governor.

The estimated 23 unknown Confederate dead at Utoy are from Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s corps. Eleven known Confederate soldiers are there.

Historians disagree about the importance of the Battle of Utoy Creek. The seminal “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” makes scant mention and Sherman didn’t mention the failed attack in his memoirs.

But Terry White, historian and sexton for the cemetery group, said Utoy Creek indeed was a significant Rebel victory. According to McDuffie, Sherman underreported his battle casualties and failures to Washington, so as not to impair President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election chances.

Atlanta’s first physician, Dr. Joshua Gilbert, treated wounded Confederates at the church and, along with a Civil War nurse, is buried at Utoy Cemetery. The burial ground is linked to early white settlement on formerly Creek Indian land. Atlanta was then known as Marthasville and was very wooded.

White has written an extensive history of the cemetery and said that the ongoing work “is a labor of love” for volunteers, many of whom have ancestors buried at Utoy. Last year, in an interview with a radio station in Bartow County, he gave an overview of the association’s work.

His ancestors were among those trapped by the siege of Atlanta and he talked about a Union major general, of all people, coming to their aid with food.

Jacob D. Cox wrote about two dozen civilians hiding in a “bombproof” or “dugout” near Utoy Creek.

Cox on Aug. 11, 1864, wrote “In this bomb-proof four families are now living, and I never felt more pity than when, day before yesterday, I looked down into the pit, and saw there, in the gloom made visible by a candle burning while it was broad day above, women sitting on the floor of loose boards, resting against each other, haggard and wan, trying to sleep away the days of terror, while innocent-looking children, four or five years old, clustered around the air-hole, looking up with pale faces and great staring eyes as they heard the singing of the bullets that were flying thick above their sheltering place.”

The Utoy Cemetery Association is currently seeking donations to complete the GIS mapping of the cemetery and unmarked graves, ideally by late autumn. The 3.5-acre site is about 1 mile from the Army’s Fort McPherson.

McDuffie said the group, which is not associated with a church, hopes the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources will help it identify and apply for grants to preserve the cemetery.

The National Register listing may help the association, founded in 1977, qualify for a spot on a website suggesting visits to designated sites in Atlanta. The church building is not eligible for registry because of many changes over the years.

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