Simone de Beauvoir, the noted French philosopher and activist, once said, “History is a great cemetery.” But you could just as easily argue the opposite, that a cemetery is great history. BGES member and retired surgeon Bill McKinnon certainly sees it that way. For more than two decades, he has made it his mission to safeguard Atlanta’s history through his efforts to restore, maintain, and educate people about the city’s Historic Oakland Cemetery.
“It is the only remnant of antebellum Atlanta that still exists,” McKinnon says. “There are no antebellum buildings in town today—what Sherman didn’t burn have fallen prey to developers over the last 170 years. I enjoy learning about Atlanta history by reading the stones of Atlanta’s pioneers. The beauty of this Victorian park with its plantings and beautiful statuary is always a bonus.”
As McKinnon tells it, his interest in Historic Oakland Cemetery developed unexpectedly. He credits an old friend, Dr. Rob Zaworski, with getting him involved. They had interned at Grady Hospital together, and in 1995 McKinnon ran into Zaworski at a Civil War RoundTable meeting in Atlanta.
“Rob had purchased, sight unseen, a plot for himself at Historic Oakland Cemetery,” McKinnon recalls. “It was adjacent to the Confederate section, which he found in terrible disrepair—broken, sunken, misplaced, or absent stones for thousands of soldiers. Together we decided to do what we could to clean things up, and this turned into a lengthy project.”
Up until this point, McKinnon had slowly been rekindling a childhood passion for the Civil War. He grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, in the 1950s, and learned about the great conflict from his father. “He took us on trips to lots of famous sites,” he remembers. “I can’t guess how many times I went to Appomattox.”
When McKinnon was 10, his family moved to Atlanta, which opened an exciting new world of Civil War history to him. But over time, his career in medicine took precedent. McKinnon attended college, medical school, and six years of surgical training at Emory University. He entered practice in general vascular surgery in 1980 at Emory University Hospital Midtown and spent the next 38 years there, until retiring in 2019.
“I’d put the Civil War on the back burner during training out of necessity,” McKinnon says. But the Ken Burns’s series reignited his interest. He started reading again and went on some tours. Then came his chance meeting with Zaworski.
“Rob and I started an effort that turned out to involve restoration of about 3,500 graves in the ‘known’ section of the Confederate portion of the cemetery,” McKinnon says. “We did this not to glorify in any way the Old South, but because it needed doing and the soldiers deserved respect. We worked together with a small group of occasional volunteers on Saturdays for about five years.”
Armed with picks, shovels, winches, and other tools, McKinnon and his cohorts raised sunken stones to the appropriate height and filled the holes with gravel to preserve the adjustment. “It was a bit disconcerting for visitors to see two surgeons working in the cemetery,” McKinnon recalls. “Many stones were broken and we learned the proper method to repair them with mortar by preservation guidelines.”
When the two friends compared their findings with the official records, they found many stones to be missing and petitioned the VA for replacements. “Others were in the wrong place, and we adjusted them to match the records,” McKinnon says. “Once we finished, Rob published a description of our work and a correct listing of the burials in a book entitled Headstones of Heroes.”
Ultimately, the Oakland Historic Foundation was formed, and the job of maintaining and preserving the cemetery fell under its auspices. “Today, a group of knowledgeable and energetic young men handle problems throughout the park,” McKinnon says. “While the cemetery is landlocked a mile from downtown and cannot expand, work inside the park is done constantly.”
Currently, the focus is on the cemetery’s Jewish and African-American portions. “The black area contains many slave burials, but also the graves of many prominent black citizens—physicians, pharmacists, dentists, lawyers, and successful businessmen,” McKinnon explains. “Graves of these people are being restored, but also burials of slaves and other indigents are being addressed. Oakland is a public park, not a perpetual care cemetery—thus there is always work to do.”
For his part, McKinnon’s role has evolved from manual labor to education. “For the last 20 years I have enjoyed taking small groups of friends—up to 20 or so, many surgical trainees—on tours centered on Atlanta history and the city’s part in the Civil War,” he says. “I’ve developed a great interest in Atlanta Civil War medicine—who the patients were, who cared for them, and where were the hospitals. At present I’m helping finish up planning for an Atlanta Medical History tour that will stress Atlanta history and the evolution of medical care in the city.”
On a typical tour, McKinnon will point out prominent individuals who are among the Historic Oakland Cemetery’s permanent residents, such as Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, legendary golfer Bobby Jones, 27 Atlanta mayors, and six Georgia governors. Notable Civil War figures interred there include Capt. William Fuller, Gen. Clement Evans, Gen. John B. Gordon, and Alfred Iverson. “We also have a row of 16 Union soldier burials, all having died in Atlanta hospitals in the summer of 1862,” McKinnon adds.
For McKinnon, simply strolling through the Historic Oakland Cemetery is a great way to stay connected to the Civil War. His involvement with BGES also feeds his passion. After serving on the BGES Board for two years, he became a Board Vice President in August 2019, and is now charged with facilitating fundraising.
“I’ve been a member for about 15 years,” he says. “I started touring and found it most rewarding. I made lots of good friends and learned a lot. I’ve remained involved as I now see the importance of the mission. No one else in the country does what BGES does—providing ‘in the weeds’ experiences to see where events actually happened, and working to be sure that the history of the Civil War doesn’t simply drift away from the public memory.”
There’s no doubt McKinnon has taken that message to heart. In fact, he delivers it whenever he’s wrapping up tours at the Historic Oakland Cemetery. McKinnon always stops at the grave of Carrie Berry Crumley, who as a 10-year-old kept a daily diary of life in Atlanta during the bombardment of August 1864.
“Her book has become a frequently quoted source on life during this period,” McKinnon says. “I always urge tour participants to share their own stories, like Carrie, to further the tradition of oral story telling. I greatly enjoy sharing with others the joy of learning about history—and it always seems to be appreciated
All photos courtesy of Bill McKinnon.