The Cornerstone of Bartow County’s History:

Historic Identity from the Gold Dome 1903 Court House Time Capsule

by David B. Parker

Kennesaw State University

 

 

On April 21, 1902, six hundred people gathered on the corner of Erwin and Market Streets in Cartersville, Georgia, to observe the laying of the cornerstone of Bartow County’s new courthouse.  The ceremony that day included proclamations and speeches by local dignitaries, songs by a male quartet–and the placement of some thirty items with the cornerstone, a time capsule of sorts for Bartow’s future residents.

For several months after the laying of the cornerstone, workers built what has become the county’s most recognizable symbol: the gold-domed courthouse.  The building was dedicated on January 12, 1903.

Exactly a hundred years after the dedication, the Etowah Valley Historical Society opened the cornerstone and removed its contents.  Time had not been kind to many of the items.  Much of the paper had disintegrated, although some was in surprisingly good condition.  Apparently a small bit of moisture had seeped into the walls and interacted with the limestone mortar that had been poured on top of the box containing the items.  The result was that the top of the tin covering had deteriorated, allowing the corrosive effects of the limestone to get at the contents.

Although many of the items did not survive the century, or had deteriorated to the point of being illegible or unidentifiable, we know exactly what was there, because a list had been published in the local newspaper in 1902.[1]

Among the items was the usual stuff one might expect to find: a program of the day’s events; copies of newspapers, from both Cartersville and Atlanta, containing stories about the courthouse; lists of Cartersville and Bartow County officials; a list of city merchants who closed their places of business that day for the ceremony; and so forth.[2]

The masons who worked on the courthouse contributed the most recent issue of The Stone Cutter’s Journal

Masons (members of Masonic lodges) often participated in the laying of cornerstones, especially for public buildings, so not surprisingly there were several Masonic items: copies of by-laws and lodge proceedings, a Masonic apron, and a copy of Akin’s Lodge Manual and Masonic Law Digest.  John Wesley Akin, a Cartersville attorney (and, as his name suggests, a Methodist), was president of both the Georgia Senate and the state bar association.  Akin was also one of the leading Masons in the state, and his Manual became the standard for the Georgia organization.

Someone donated a U.S. silver coin, dated 1901 (the year the foundation was laid for the courthouse), and another a 1902 nickel.  The oldest item was a an otherwise unidentified “small silver coin” dated 1773.

Almost half of the items, though, had to do with the county’s four years in the Confederacy.

There was a lot of money: Confederate notes (for 50 cents, $20, $50, $100, and $500) and Civil War-era Georgia notes (25 cents, $1, and $20).  Of course, people who gave this money for the cornerstone weren’t giving up as much as it might sound.  When the Confederacy ended in 1865, its currency became worthless, at least as legal tender.  Even as collector’s items, it was not terribly valuable for a long time.  One could buy a Confederate dollar as late as the 1920s for a nickel.  But then the value of Confederate money began to rise.  By the mid-1940s, a collector had to spend one U.S. dollar to buy a “worthless” Confederate dollar.  Since World War II, the Confederate dollar has risen in value faster than the Consumer Price Index and has done better than such solid currencies as the German mark, the Swiss franc, and the Japanese yen.  According to John Shelton Reed, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, “As the Yankee dollar is eaten away by inflation, Confederate money should begin to attract not just currency speculators but ordinary Americans looking for a sounder currency in which to hold their savings.”[3]  Maybe that old bumper sticker is right: “Save your confederate money, boys, the South’s gonna rise again.”

Also in the cornerstone were Confederate postage stamps.  The Confederate government established a post office in early 1861.  Today’s USPS could take a lesson from the Confederate post office, which actually made a profit in 1863.

The time capsule contained an issue of the Southern Confederacy, a newspaper published in Atlanta during the Civil War.  One of the highlights of the Southern Confederacy was the writings of “Bill Arp,” penname of Charles Henry Smith, a lawyer in Rome, who wrote a popular series of letters for southern newspapers during the war and Reconstruction.  A historian of journalism in Georgia during the Civil War called the Southern Confederacy “one of the most rabid of the secessionist papers in the South.”  Smith described it as “fire and brimstone against the yankees” and said he wrote for it “just to give our boys some comfort and our enemies some sass.”[4]  (Incidentally, Smith moved to Cartersville in 1877, where he wrote a weekly column for the Atlanta Constitution for twenty-five years.)

The issue of the Southern Confederacy in the cornerstone, dated September 10, 1862, contains a “Proclamation by the President” (President Jefferson Davis, of course): “Once more upon the plains of Manassas have our armies been blessed by the Lord of Hosts with a triumph over our enemies. It is my privilege to invite you once more to His footstool, not now in the garb of fasting and sorrow, but with joy and gladness, to render thanks for the great mercies received at His hands.”  Davis proclaimed Thursday, September 18, 1862, “as a day of Prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the great mercies vouchsafed to our people.”

One of the most interesting items in the cornerstone was a copy of a poem, generally titled “Lines on a Confederate Note.”  According to the traditional story, the poem, written on a Confederate bill, was found on the field at Appomattox shortly after the war’s last battle there.

Representing nothing on God’s earth now,

And naught in the waters below it,

As the pledge of a nation that’s dead and gone,

Keep it, dear friend, and show it.

Show it to those who will lend an ear

To the tale that this trifle can tell

Of Liberty born of the patriot’s dream,

Of a storm-cradled nation that fell.

…..

Keep it, it tells all our history o’er,

From the birth of our dream to its last;

Modest, and born of the Angel Hope,

Like our hope of success, it passed.

Those are just three of the poem’s eight verses.  One wonders how it ever fit on one bill!

The poem has been attributed to Major Sidney Alroy Jonas, a native of Aberdeen, Mississippi, a newspaper editor before the war.  For several decades after the war, groups and individuals would print these words on the back of Confederate currency as a memorial, similar to the coins one might find today with special commemorative images or words stamped on them.

Margaret Mitchell quoted the first two verses of the poem in Gone with the Wind.     Will Benteen, the former Confederate soldier who stayed on at Tara after the war, approached Scarlett and Melanie, sitting on the veranda, and said, “When I was over at Fayetteville today, I found something right cute that I thought would interest you ladies and I brought it home.”  When Scarlett saw him pull a Confederate bill from his wallet, she said, “If you think Confederate money is cute, Will, I certainly don’t.  We’ve got three thousand dollars of it in Pa’s trunk this minute, and Mammy’s after me to let her paste it over the holes in the attic walls so the draft won’t get her.  And I think I’ll do it.  Then it’ll be good for something.”  Will then read the poem, which was written on “a strip of coarse brown wrapping paper, inscribed in pale home-made ink,” pasted on the back of the bill.  Melanie was touched by the poem and told Scarlett that she could not use the money to cover holes in the attic.  “It’s more than paper–just like this poem said: ‘The pledge of a nation that’s passed away!’”  Scarlett, perhaps not surprisingly, was not impressed.[5]

Finally, according to the list in the 1902 newspaper, there was a copy of a speech, delivered in 1863, by Jefferson Davis.  Unfortunately, that was one of the items that did not survive, and so we are not sure which speech it was.

The large number of Confederate items in the cornerstone might at first seem odd; after all, by 1902, the county had been around for seventy years.  The four years of the Confederacy made up only about six percent of the county’s history, and yet they account for half of the items placed in the cornerstone.

Furthermore, the area was far from being a hotbed of secessionist sentiment in 1860-1861.  All three of the county’s delegates to the secession convention of January 1861 voted against every secession measure, and those delegates had been elected by a popular vote that clearly favored the “cooperationist” candidates.[6]  Once secession was a fact, of course, most white Georgians quickly came to support it and the war effort, but here, that support was relatively slow in forming.

We might also point out that slavery, which provided if not a cause for the war, at least a strong correlation to support for secession, was relatively weak in the county.  According to the 1860 census, of the county’s total population of 15,724, there were 4,282 slaves–about 27%.  The statewide percentage was 44%.[7]

In 2003, when the cornerstone was opened, the state was still in the midst of the debate over the Georgia flag.  Letters to the editor filled the pages of newspapers, arguing for a need to preserve our Confederate heritage.  Someone even stole the blue flag flying over the courthouse and replaced it with one in which the miniature flags at the bottom were all Confederate flags!  Amidst that furor, it was easy to imagine the Confederate presence in the cornerstone as simply an earlier example of that flagger spirit.

However, that might not be the case.  Two other events associated with the courthouse also contained a certain Confederate component and might be useful in helping us understand the significance of that Confederate/Civil War presence: the actual dedication of the building 1903, and the dedication on the courthouse square a few years later of a Confederate monument.

When the courthouse was formally dedicated, Judge A. M. Foute began his speech by describing how Bartow County received its name.  The county was originally named Cass, after Lewis Cass, of Michigan (secretary of war under Andrew Jackson, and therefore a major figure in the removal of the Cherokee from Northwest Georgia).  But when the war came, Cass’s increasingly abolitionist views alienated many residents of the Georgia county named for him.  (I explain to my students that he went from “Indian remover” to “damnyankee.”)  In December 1861, the county petitioned the state legislature to change its name to “Bartow,” after Col. Francis Bartow, of Savannah, who was killed in the Battle of First Manassas earlier that summer.  Bartow was one of the first Confederate officers to lose his life in the war, and hence was one of the South’s first martyrs.  Foute was proud to point out that of the nine other counties in the United States named for Cass, none made a similar name change.  The point of Foute’s remarks was certainly not anti-abolition, but rather the county changing its name to Bartow to honor “that intrepid, patriot soldier.”[8]

John W. Akin, the Mason mentioned above, gave a second speech at the ceremony.  The newspaper reported that in his speech, Akin “drew a refreshing picture of [the county’s] riches, not alone in her soil, her mountains and valleys, her adoptabilities [sic] to varied agricultural products, but alike in her minerals, her scenery and, above all her men. There was never a time when she did not have at least one man of note.”  Akin concluded by quoting Father Abraham Ryan: “A land without monuments is a land without memories, and a land without memories is a land without hope.”  Actually he misquoted Ryan, who had said, “A land without ruins is a land without memories–a land without memories is a land without history.”  Perhaps the misquotation was not accidental, though; Akin was not there to talk about the ruins of the war, but rather a monument (in the form of the glorious new courthouse) to the glories of Bartow County, especially her notable men.[9]

On December 8, 1908, the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to the county’s Confederate soldiers.  George Aubrey noted in his introductory remarks at the dedication ceremony that “monuments similar to this spring up all over our land like exclamation points, all having a common origin and a common object: all seeking to perpetuate the memories of the courage and patriotism” of the southern soldiers they honored, and “to teach us that though men may die, virtue and honor and patriotism shall not perish out of the land, forever.”[10]

So how can we understand the Confederate items in the cornerstone?  It is instructive to note that among the items in the cornerstone, few represented the militant side of the Confederacy.  By that I mean that there were no battle flags, no uniform buttons, no maps of troop movements in the area, that sort of thing.  Similarly, there was little in the way of political matter–no copy of Georgia’s secession ordinance, no treatise arguing the constitutional right of secession, no copy of the Confederate Constitution.  In other words, this is not a “fergit, hell!” perspective on the Confederacy.

Furthermore, there was nothing in the cornerstone about the ruins that John Akin did not mention in his speech–and there were plenty of ruins from the war that he could have mentioned.  Referring to the county’s anti-secession sympathy in 1860 and 1861, county historian Lucy Cunyus noted that “it was the irony of fate that Cass should suffer more than any other county in north Georgia during the years of ’64-’65.”[11]  Cassville, the county seat, was burned to the ground, and various other homes and buildings suffered the same fate.

Instead of militant or political items, or even reminders of the destruction the county suffered as the Federal troops came through in 1864, people put rather mundane items in the cornerstone: currency and stamps, for example, the sort of things that implicitly acknowledge defeat (remember “Lines on a Confederate Note”) simply by their presence.  They were historic, things of the past.  They were not an argument for the Confederacy; they were just a reminder of it.

One could argue that the issue of the Southern Confederacy, containing Davis’s speech thanking God for victory over the Yankees, fits in well with Charles Reagan Wilson’s discussion of the religion of the Lost Cause[12]–or perhaps it was just a newspaper, serving the same function as the stamps and coins.

Perhaps we can find a clue to understanding in Rebecca Latimer Felton, champion of women’s rights and the first woman in the U.S. Senate–and for most of her life, a resident of Cartersville.  Felton was deeply critical of southern leaders, in Georgia and elsewhere, who used the sectional crisis for political gain and led the South out of the Union.  In her Memoirs of Georgia Politics, she described a meeting in Cartersville just after the state’s secession at which a local politician said, “I am ready to drink every drop of blood that secession will bring to this country.  Yankees will not fight; one Southern man could whip a dozen anywhere.”  Felton noted that “he did not estimate the size of his contract.  It was reported at the close he did not get near enough to a battle field to see any blood, much less undertake to drink a drop of it.  On this sort of bravado our people were fed, and I am satisfied that there never was a section of country where the masses were so completely deceived as to the future, ahead of them.”[13]

Felton said that secession had been wrong and placed the blame for the war entirely on the concern over slavery: “If there had been no slaves, there would have been no war.  It tires me to read about the alleged causes, other than the ownership of slave property.”[14]

But although she criticized the war and those who brought it on, she still spoke of the “fortitude,” the “heroism” of the southern soldiers and the women back home who supported them.  “The story of their courage will bear repeating, because it was genuine, sincere and patriotic.”[15]  Felton was able to draw a distinction between the war and the southerners, on the battlefield and on the home front, who had to fight it. Much of Northwest Georgia probably reflected Felton’s views (or at least a more moderate version of her perspective on the war).

In that case, the Confederate aspects of these celebrations might be nothing more than a way, first, to honor the veterans and the folks who stayed at home (whether or not one was still caught up in the Lost Cause mythos, one could respect, as Felton did, the bravery and sacrifice shown by the war generation), and second, to emphasize the virtue, honor, bravery, and so forth that these people represented (just as we now hold up those who fought in World War II as “the greatest generation”).

In Ghosts of the Confederacy, Gaines Foster suggested another possibility. Foster argued that, by the late nineteenth century, Confederate celebrations had “sanitized and trivialized” the war so that southerners could ignore the issues that had led to it (and of course were still a major problem in southern society) while they praised the veterans and what they had come to stand for–not glory on the battlefield so much as the fact that, in George Aubrey’s words, “virtue and honor and patriotism shall not perish out of the land.”  Foster tied this to the building of a New South society: “The model of social unity and the example of the loyal common man [the lowly Confederate soldier] . . . helped hold southern society together during the social and economic tensions of the late nineteenth century.   The acting out in its rituals of social solidarity, respect for loyal followers, and deference to leaders helped foster the cultural patterns that made political revolt or racial reform so difficult.”[16]  In other words, they used the past to promote their vision of the future.

The Confederate items in the cornerstone of the Bartow County courthouse were perhaps motivated by a simple desire to honor those of the war generation and use them as a model to encourage virtue and patriotism, or perhaps by an implicit desire to create a new social order to promote the New South.  In any case, it seems clear that the Confederate emphasis in the cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the sort of neo-Confederate sympathies that we have seen in the last few years.

[1] News and Courant [Cartersville], 30 April 1902. The items from the cornerstone are currently on display in the Bartow History Center in downtown Cartersville.

[2] Most of the following discussion of the items in the cornerstone is taken from two articles I wrote for the Cartersville Daily Tribune News: “Time to Open the Time Capsule”  (5 Jan. 2003) and “The Cornerstone of Bartow’s History”  (12 Jan. 2003).

[3] John Shelton Reed, Whistling Dixie: Dispatches from the South (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 6.

[4] Rabun Lee Brantley, Georgia Journalism of the Civil War Period, Contributions to Education, no. 58 (Nashville: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1929), 46; Atlanta Constitution, 31 July 1892, 1 Oct. 1899.

[5] Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, Anniversary Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 468-9.

[6]Lucy Josephine Cunyus, History of Bartow County, Formerly Cass (1933; rpt., Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1994), 209; Michael P. Johnson, “A New Look at the Popular Vote for Delegates to the Georgia Secession Convention,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 56 (1972): 259-75.

[7] Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Library, http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/

[8] News and Courant, 15 Jan. 1903.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 10 Oct. 1908.

[11]Cunyus, 209.

[12] Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980).

[13]Mrs. William H. [Rebecca] Felton, My Memoirs of Georgia Politics (Atlanta: Index Printing Company, 1911), 35.

[14] Ibid., 37, 43.

[15] Ibid., 46.

[16] Gaines Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, The Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 195.

[1] Gaines Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, The Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 195.

1903 Gold Dome Court House History – David B. Parker