248 Oakland Avenue, SE
On March 14, 2008, Oakland Cemetery was awakened from its eternal slumber. A tremendous tornado bore down on downtown Atlanta damaging landmarks such as CNN Center and the Peachtree Plaza Hotel. After ripping its way through downtown, the twister ripped through peacefully dreaming Oakland Cemetery, one of Atlanta’s oldest and certainly its grandest burial ground. The winds toppled many majestic namesake oaks which toppled and broke fragile marble monuments. The Archangel Gabriel, trumpet in hand to summon forth the sleeping masses for Judgment Day, atop the monument for Governor Joseph E. Brown, was thrown to the ground along with obelisks and columns throughout the cemetery.
Hundreds of monuments were damaged, but the Historic Oakland Foundation immediately went to work repairing and restoring the cemetery. Since the cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Place in 1979, the foundation has worked to maintain Oakland’s peaceful slumber. In fact, they have worked to improve the beauty of that slumber.
I knew nothing of this when I visited today to photograph this haunted cemetery and I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s been a very hot summer in the South and I expected to find an ancient, baking cemetery with dry patches of grass in the plots. To my relief, the cemetery is being transformed into a garden with lush plantings surrounding the ancient monuments. The effect is quite lovely. Lush magnolias and oaks (those not completely taken out by the tornado) shade lovingly restored memorials with rose bushes, juniper and flowers covering and in between the graves. Birds fill the trees and peer from perches atop statues and mausoleums. While only part of the cemetery has been restored to its garden-like setting, the work continues.
Founded in 1850 as the Atlanta Graveyard or City Burial Place, the cemetery began on just 6 acres and over time it expanded to the current 48 acres. Much of the expansion took place during the Civil War when the city’s military hospitals required a place to bury the dead. Following the fierce fighting around the city, space was needed as bodies were recovered from the battlefields. Confederate dead, both known and unknown found their final repose in the cemetery’s garden-like grounds. Near the south-east corner of the cemetery, the seven Union operatives who participated in the famous Great Locomotive Chase were hung before they were buried on the cemetery grounds.
In 1872, the name of the cemetery was changed to Oakland to recognize the majestic oaks that shaded the grounds. Statesmen, governors, businessmen, generals, clergy and their families found their final rest here side by side with unknown military dead and the indigent that were laid in the potter’s field. African-Americans and Jews also found their place within the walls of Oakland. But with the arrival of the mid-20th century, vandals and neglect began to take a toll. Now in the loving hands of the Historic Oakland Foundation, the cemetery has passed into its third century and its beautiful and peaceful slumber continues.
In such a grand cemetery, a place with some 70,000 interments, it’s no surprise that spiritual activity has been reported. Most of the stories seem to revolve around the Civil War. The most famous story is that of the roll call of the dead. A young man visiting the Confederate portion of the cemetery on a December day reported hearing soldiers’ names being called with faint voices answering “heah” and “present.” According to William Bender, the young man even heard his own name called. Alan Brown reports that one visitor witnessed the blue-clad figure of a soldier hanging in a tree, possibly one of the Union conspirators in the Great Locomotive Chase, while another witnessed a bleeding Confederate lying atop a grave.
Bender also relates a legend of the spirit of Jasper Newton Smith, a real estate investor whose likeness now sits in a chair atop his mausoleum. Legend tells that his spirit climbs out of his chair at night and walks the grounds, though Bender found no eyewitness accounts of this activity. Reese Christian does report a shadowy figure that was seen in the cemetery by a cemetery staff member at night.
In October of 2008, the statue of the Archangel Gabriel was restored to its perch atop the Brown monument. He stands, trumpet in hand, to call the dreaming citizens forth. Until that moment, he silently watches over the gardens of Oakland.
- Bender, William N. Haunted Atlanta and Beyond. Toccoa, GA: Currahee Books, 2005.
- Brown, Alan. Haunted Georgia. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
- Brown, Robbie. “Atlanta Saves Battered Gem, a Home for the Dead That’s Prized by the Living.” New York Times. 10 October 2008.
- Christian, Reese. Ghosts of Atlanta: Phantoms of the Phoenix City. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008.
- Davis, Mark. “Heavenly herald of restoriation.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 11 October 2008.
- “History.” Historic Oakland Foundation. Accessed 29 June 2011.
- Oakland Cemetery (Atlanta). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 June 2011.
- Roberts, Nancy. Georgia Ghosts. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1997.