The Story of The Old Guard of
The Atlanta Gate City Guard
By then Major and current Commandant COL John A. Dietrichs of The Old Guard – March, 2012
There is a well kept secret in Atlanta concerning the first Military unit ever formed in our city. It is called The Gate City Guard of Atlanta. It has very deep roots in this city, the state of Georgia, the Confederate Army, and the Old South. When Reconstruction ended in the late 1870’s, this unit, like Atlanta, rose from the ashes of war and retribution and became a force for reunification of the United States, states that once fought against each other, reunification of Americans formerly of the Blue and the Grey. Some years later, the older members of the Gate City Guard, including many Confederate Veterans who could no longer effectively serve as active members of the Gate City Guard, formed The Old Guard, of which I am a current member. I would like to share some of this story with you today.
In order to understand The Old Guard and what they stand for, you must know something of the founding of The Gate City Guard of Atlanta. By the mid-1850’s, Atlanta was a small but fast growing town that had formed around the nexus of three railroad lines; the Western & Atlantic, the Georgia, and the Macon & Western. Because these three railroads crossed one geographical spot, a person or a product standing at the railroad station hub or “terminus” in Atlanta could travel in any direction to any other city or destination of consequence in the South, and indeed to any other populated region of the country touched by the railroad system – hence, Atlanta became known as “The Gate City” of the South.
In the late 1850’s, with the population growing rapidly, the city Police and Firemen were few, and if any emergency or unusual situation occurred that might tax their ability to maintain security, there was no fallback. As a result, a number of the most prominent men in the City came together and formed a local militia, not unlike the Minutemen of our Revolution, who would have their own arms and would eventually have a Charter from the State of Georgia granting certain immunities and privileges to its members. This original unit was comprised of 100 Officers and Privates, commanded by Captain George Harvey Thompson, and was officially organized on January 8, 1857. It is believed that the heart of these volunteers came from the fledgling Atlanta Fire Department. The Gate City Guard received its original state Charter from Governor Joe. E. Brown on December 4, 1859. It is also known that the Guard first met on the second floor of the Georgia Railroad Bank building at the corner of Wall and Peachtree Streets.
Examples of how The Gate City Guard was used in these early days of their formation include the following stories:
In July of 1859 a local resident, a certain Mr. Cobb, was sentenced to be hanged for the crime of murder (our research has not yet shown if this Cobb was related to the later and more famous Howell Cobb). There was concern that his friends and family might try to break him out of jail, and The Guard was called in to thwart any such action, which they did. In November of that same year, 1859, a terrible fire swept through the down town area along Whitehall and Alabama Streets, damaging or destroying nearly a dozen businesses. The Guard was called in once again, this time to prevent looting of saved merchandise placed in the street. By these and other actions, The Guard won the hearts, admiration and respect of their fellow citizens. Also at this time the Guard began to receive praise for their sharp military dress uniforms, and the well-practiced precision military maneuvers they performed at City festivities.
As we all know, in early 1861 the State of Georgia voted with other Southern states to secede from the Union, and The Guard was the first militia company of the state to offer their services to the Governor, Joe Brown. They soon traveled to Macon and on April 1, 1861, joined what was called The First Georgia Regiment. Prior to their departure, the ladies of Atlanta presented The Guard with a silk battle flag to commemorate the occasion. This battle flag, which was of the first National Confederate Flag design and not the famed crossed bars of St. Andrew’s Battle Flag we all know from a bit later in the war, survives today, and is one of the prized relics still held by our organization. This flag is currently being restored with the invaluable assistance of The Atlanta History Center in Buckhead.
Once formed, the First Georgia Regiment was sent almost immediately to Pensacola, Florida, where they assisted in strengthening defensive fortifications in anticipation of an attack by Union forces on Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. Within several weeks, the Regiment was ordered to Virginia, and participated in the ill-fated (for the South) Western Virginia Campaign of 1861.
The unit’s first engagement was at the Battle of Laurel Hill in present day West Virginia, which lasted from July 7 to July 11, 1861. This was actually one of the first land battles of the war, and Union success under General George McClellan at this early point in the War helped his rise to fame as the “Young Napoleon” of the North. This win, combined with other Union-won battles in the area, helped secure Western Virginia for the Union, soon to split from the Confederacy, to become a new state called West Virginia. Confederate General Robert S. Garnett was killed in a rearguard action retreating from Laurel Hill, and became the first General of either side to be killed in battle. Despite the final outcome of this engagement, The First Georgia met with initial success at Laurel Hill, and only later when other units fell back from the hard won ground did they follow suit. After two weeks of retreating south they finally rejoined the bulk of the Confederate army, and were then led by General Robert E. Lee in the Cheat Mountain Campaign, Lee’s first action of the war, still in Western Virginia.
In early 1862, the Guard’s original enlistment period with the Confederate Army of 12 months expired, and many of the survivors returned to Atlanta, reluctantly disbanding the Gate City Guard for the remainder of the war. However, many of these same men subsequently joined other Confederate units and served with distinction until the end of hostilities.
The most famous member of the post-war Gate City Guard of Atlanta and The Old Guard was Joseph F. Burke. He was born in Charleston, S.C. in November of 1845, and at the tender age of 16, was in uniform as a cadet of the Charleston Zouave Corps and the Military Academy of South Carolina, now known as The Citadel.
We learn in school that the American Civil War began when Ft. Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861, but that is not really correct. The first shots of the war were actually fired on January 9, 1861 as a small group of Citadel Zouave cadets, including Cadet Burke, fired two 24 pound cannon upon a 1,200 ton civilian steamship hired by Union forces called “The Star of the West”. This event was captured in an engraving published in Harper’s Weekly on January 26, 1861.
“The Star of the West” was attempting to resupply Major Robert Anderson’s garrison on Ft. Sumter with provisions and, more importantly, with about 250 additional soldiers. Having been given a warning shot across the bow from the Cadets, she was then hit as many as five times, finally turning about to leave Charleston Harbor, failing in her mission. As an interesting aside, ironically “The Star of the West” was later captured by Confederate forces in April of 1861 and served as a hospital ship in New Orleans until Admiral Farragut captured that city. Before New Orleans fell, Confederate officials filled the ship with millions in gold, silver and paper currency from the captured U.S. mint and Confederate coffers in New Orleans, and sailed her north up the Mississippi to Vicksburg, where Confederate General William Loring had her sunk broadside in the Tallahatchie River near Greenwood to block passage of the Union flotilla. It is believed, however, that the gold and silver were removed first……
Back to Joseph Burke. Following the war and around 1870 he moved to Atlanta seeking business opportunities in this growing city. Also in that year of 1870, he married Louise Cotting of Washington, Georgia, the daughter of David G. Cotting who was Secretary of State for Georgia from 1868 to 1873. A letterhead dated 1881 shows Burke as Chief Partner in J.F. Burke & Company, “Proprietors of the Georgia Spice Mills”, dealing in tea, spices, baking powder and flavoring extracts.
Beginning in 1877, Joseph Burke began a distinguished 50 year career with first The Gate City Guard of Atlanta as the unit’s commander, and some years later as the Colonel commanding the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard. In addition to his service to both Guard organizations, he was an active member of the Atlanta Association of Charities, The Atlanta Benevolent Society (which later became Grady Hospital), served for 20 years as the President of the Atlanta Humane Society, and also served as the President of the Young Men’s Library Association, the forerunner of the Atlanta Public Library. In short, he gave a lifetime of service to his nation, region and community.
In 1877 Burke was elected Captain of the Gate City Guard of Atlanta which had just reconstituted as reconstruction ended in the South. In that leadership capacity, he conceived and planned the “Peace Mission” of 1879, a friendship tour he called the “peaceful invasion” of the North by the Guard. It was meant to help heal the divisions and ill-will that had festered through the reconstruction period, and to show that the South still retained crack military militia units just as did many northern cities. The tour included visits to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and a number of other cities.
On October 12, 1879, the Guard was received by the Seventh Regiment of New York in New York City, and Captain Burke made a speech that was representative of those he made at each stop on the tour. To give you a flavor of what he and the Guard wished to convey on this “peaceful invasion” of the North almost 15 years after the conclusion of the war, here is a part of the speech he made in New York City.
Quote – “We come among you divested of the pomp and circumstance of war. Our cartridge boxes are not lined with ammunition for our rifles, nor our ‘haversacks’ with hard tack for ourselves. The Southern flag, under which my command assumed this character of equipment, has been furled, furled with all the aspirations and hopes that gave it to the southern breeze and are now entwined in the melancholy memories of the past. We are again in our fathers’ house, and in the emblem that floats above, we recognize the Stars and Stripes of our forefathers, the colors of the Nation, the talismanic shield that will unite the growing states of this great country in one Union, inseparable forever hereafter.”
“Here on Northern soil the sons of those who were estranged in deadly conflict but a few years ago, meet and embrace in the bonds of fellowship – united once more under the same roof – breaking bread at the same table; it is a grand subject, this glorious re-union and the fraternal mingling of two great sections of our country, representing a brave and magnanimous people. We feel that good may come of this visit to you. We know that the war and its evil consequences to us are things of the past and should be forgotten. The past is buried, and now we must look to the future.” Unquote.
With these and similar eloquent words, Captain Burke and his fellow Guardsmen captured the hearts of those who heard, and helped heal the wounds between North and South as the country struggled to leave both the war and reconstruction behind. 34 years later, another famous American made a similar speech at the 50th reunion of North and South at Gettysburg – (Quote) “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends, rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten – except that we shall never forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now with a grasping hand, smiling into each other’s eyes.” (Unquote) Woodrow Wilson, 1913.
In March of 1883 Burke was serving on Georgia Governor Alexander Stephens staff when the governor, who had been in ill health, died unexpectedly three months in to his first term. Burke temporarily assumed the duties of state Adjutant General and was placed in charge of funeral arrangements. Stephen’s remains were kept in Burke’s family vault in Oakland Cemetery for about a year while a monument to his memory was created and erected in Stephen’s hometown of Crawfordville, Georgia. Many years later, on October 19, 1913, another of Col. Burke’s initiatives was realized, that of dedicating a massive double tablet of silver-gray granite to mark the resting place of Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, at his home in Crawfordville.
In 1893 the Georgia Legislature passed a law demanding that the State of Georgia be given control of the unit, including possession of all its property. At that time the most valuable possession owned by the Guard was its armory, located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, valued at some $50,000 (in 1893 dollars!). The unit was very divided on this issue, and finally the older members, including those who were Confederate veterans, decided that they were too old to assume any military duties if called upon, and separated themselves into “The Old Guard Battalion” of The Gate City Guard. These comprised about 140 of the old timers, and the youngsters remained as “The Gate City Guard”, subject to state service. The Old Guard then retained ownership of the armory, thus removing it from the grasp of the state.
Both groups remained very active and participated in the Atlanta International Cotton Exposition of 1895, entertaining the many visiting units of The Centennial Legion that had hosted them in their home cities and states in 1879.
In 1909, Col. Burke conceived and presented an idea to The Old Guard that remains one of his, and our, most significant achievements, that of erecting a monument to commemorate the “Peace Mission” of 1879. A monument committee was created, and the “Old Guard Peace Monument” was dedicated in Piedmont Park at the 14th Street entrance on October 10, 1911. Many of the Northern military units visited by The Guard in 1879 came to Atlanta for this dedication, and it is estimated that 50 to 75,000 people were present for the ceremony, including Mayors of 5 major cities and 5 state Governors. To this day, The Old Guard rededicates this monument every October, most recently in 2011 celebrating the 100th anniversary and rededication of this monument, and it remains one of our central duties in remembering our past and what The Old Guard stands for – Peace and the reunification of our country after that well known “late unpleasantness”.
The Old Guard had leading roles in various important ceremonies that took place in Atlanta over the decades since WWI, including the unveiling on April 9, 1928, of the then just completed figures of General Robert E. Lee and his horse “Traveler” on Stone Mountain.
Other annual events celebrated or observed by The Old Guard Command include:
- Robert E. Lee’s birthday on January 19
- Southern Memorial Day on April 26
- Memorial Day, May 30
- An annual pistol & rifle marksmanship competition
- Independence Day on July 4
- Every summer, recognizing outstanding cadets in various ROTC units in Greater Atlanta high schools and colleges
- (As mentioned) Peace Monument Day, October 10
- And Veteran’s Day, November 11
In addition, The Old Guard has hosted many Inaugural Balls for incoming Governors of Georgia as they have taken office.
The Old Guard erected many historical markers around the State, among them several in Atlanta. The Guard has also accumulated a number of historical and valuable military relics over the years, which for some years were on loan to and maintained by the Atlanta History Center. In 2011 many of these relics were accepted for permanent display in The Southern Museum in Kennesaw, where the famous locomotive “The General” is housed, for the public to appreciate. Through early October of 2011, a special exhibit was on display at The Southern Museum highlighting The Gate City Guard of Atlanta and The Old Guard in their role as examples of “Militia” and the “National Guard” from Revolutionary times to the present.
The motto in our armorial Old Guard emblem is “In Bello, Paceque, Primus”. In Latin this means “First in War, First in Peace”. The story of the “Gate City Guard” and its more recent organization “The Old Guard of the Gate City Guard” is representative of the national legacy of service by our citizens in uniform, who have answered the call of their country both in times of war and in times of peace.