In Their Own Words: The Preservation of a Civil War Statue

BGES Blog featured Bob Jenkins in the May issue as a BGES Member Making a Difference. One of the ways he has made a difference is by helping to preserve a controversial statue of Joseph E. Johnston in Dalton, Georgia. Amid the 2020 riots, he and others worked diligently to move it from the public city square to a mutually agreed-upon location. This work involved negotiating with different parties to find a suitable place, fund-raise, and facilitate the actual move. It’s a story about how different groups can work together to find a solution. Here it is, in his own words. 

The statue in its new location | Bob Jenkins

The moving of the Joseph E. Johnston statue was a collaborative effort by a lot of individuals and organizations in the Dalton community. While other communities were engulfed in demonstrations, protests, and riots during the summer of 2020, the people of Dalton and the surrounding area worked together to try and find a solution. Yes, there were some marches and protests in Dalton about several issues including the moving of the statue, but most of the protesters did not want the statue destroyed. Most people involved in the marches simply wanted it removed from a public city square where the statue had been located for over 100 years.

My role was in serving as the attorney for the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter. They did not want to see the statue destroyed by a mob or removed by the city to be put away in a barn or shed like so many communities had experienced. They did not want Dalton’s downtown businesses or its citizens and visitors to experience the violence and destruction which had engulfed other communities. The UDC was willing to move the statue if a suitable location could be found which would not be in violation of the state’s laws related to statues, but they did not have sufficient money to move the statue. The city agreed to cooperate with the UDC and give them time to move the statue, but they declined to provide any funds to pay for the move as it was not a budgeted expense that the city could cover.

So, the challenges that my client and our community faced were: 1. Finding a suitable location that was prominent, in the downtown business district, and NOT on public or government property but on private property; and 2. Finding resources in either money or in-kind contributions for the safe relocation of the statue.

After looking at several locations including the city’s Confederate Cemetery at the West Hill Cemetery and a new park known as Rocky Face Ridge Park, which was being completed by Whitfield County in which Dalton is situated, it was determined that neither of these locations was appropriate. First, the State of Georgia’s law concerning the removal of statues specifically does not permit a Confederate statue to be removed to a cemetery UNLESS the statue was originally erected for the purpose of being displayed in a cemetery. The Joseph E. Johnston Statue was not created to be placed in a cemetery. Thus, the city’s Confederate Cemetery at West Hill was not a viable option. Additionally, there are some 421 Confederate and 4 Federal soldiers buried there, and the Johnston statue would dwarf the rest of the cemetery and perhaps be a distraction.

The county’s new park, Rocky Face Ridge Park, which includes earthworks, gun emplacements, stacked rock walls, and fortifications from some of the February and May 1864 fighting at Rocky Face Ridge and Crow Valley, appeared to be a viable option. However, this park (which is opening in 2022) is a multi-use park with hiking, mountain biking, recreation, and conservation in addition to historic interpretation. Also, simply moving a statue from a city government property to a county government property would not solve the issue of government involvement, and the same issues which occurred in the City of Dalton in the summer of 2020 could (and likely would) repeat in the county at some point in the future. Additionally, not all of the various parties to the multi-use park were on board with the statue’s relocation to that site. If a Confederate leader’s statue was placed at the new park, would there be a need for a Sherman or other Federal leader’s statue to provide balance? Finally, the new park is several miles north of the downtown business district where the statue was intended to be displayed. Therefore, for several reasons, the county park despite its historic significance and natural beauty, was not a viable option.

However, we did have a third very good option. The local historical society, the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, had acquired the historic Huff House through a generous donation from its previous owners, the Boring family, and the house had recently been completely restored to its 1860s condition. Moreover, it was the home and location of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s headquarters during the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s winter encampment from December 1863 to May 1864. This location would be very fitting for the statue given his connection to this house.

The Trustees of the historical society’s Board agreed to permit the statue to be relocated to the Huff House property provided that certain conditions were met: 1) The UDC would retain ownership of the statue, 2) The Society would not pay for the relocation of the statue, 3) The UDC or community would have to arrange for the preparation and pouring of a concrete pad on the property sufficient to support the heavy statue, 4) The UDC would have to pay for the move and any repairs to the statue or the foundation and steps if damaged during the move (the bronze statue sits atop a base which was in four sections of hand-carved solid granite weighing over 50,000 pounds), 5) Lighting on the statue needed to be provided, 6) A fence needed to be installed around the curtilage surrounding the statue, and, 7) A security camera system needed to be installed.

As the UDC did not have the kind of money needed to complete these requirements, we reached out to the community. The Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia agreed to be a conduit, or bank, to serve as a blind trust for anyone who desired to contribute to the statue’s relocation. Support came from ALL directions in the community as those who wanted to see the statue moved AND those who wanted to see it preserved made donations to the blind trust. The project was initially budgeted at $20,000–$25,000, but it ended up costing nearly double that amount with the erection of a decorative wrought iron fence around the statue and grounds. The City of Dalton assisted in the logistics of moving the statue, which began on February 6, 2021. By the summer of 2021, all of the conditions had been met except for the completion of a portion of the fence, which was erected in stages. The last portion of the fence was just completed last month.

As an aside, and all politics aside, the statue is a beautiful work of art. Commissioned from Tiffany’s Studio in New York City at a cost of $6,000, renowned sculptor Ms. Belle Kinney completed the bronze statue, which was dedicated in 1912.

It is open to the public from the street side anytime, and tours are available for the statue, house, and grounds on Fridays and by appointment. The Huff House is also famous for being the site of General Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to arm enslaved individuals to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for freedom, and Dr. Mary Edward Walker, Assistant Surgeon from the 52nd Ohio, who was captured in April 1864 near Tunnel Hill and Nickajack Gap, was housed there for about a week during her period of captivity in Dalton. She received the Medal of Honor and to date continues to be the only female recipient of the award.