A small crowd braced themselves against the wind and gathered around a simple marker at Myrtle Hill Cemetery where a hero of the southern cause during the Civil War and savior of the archives of the state of Georgia was honored for his service.
That man — Col. George Washington Lee — previously had no headstone to mark where he lay, and to this day the exact location of his grave is still a mystery. But a local historical research nonprofit decided to change all that and finally give the man the credit he deserves for his actions, which culminated in a brief ceremony Saturday afternoon.
Lee’s career in service of the state of Georgia and the Confederacy during the Civil War came to a climax on Nov. 18, 1864, when he was able to lead train cars full of the state archives away from the capital in Milledgeville to Augusta, avoiding capture by Union forces under Gen. William T. Sherman.
David Mitchell, executive director of the southern history research nonprofit H.M. Mitchell Inc., created in honor of his father, honored the colonel who died in Rome 133 years ago with a headstone honoring Lee’s achievements during the Civil War.
After hearing a lecture at the Cyclorama in Atlanta that mentioned Lee’s exploits during the war, Mitchell got the idea to further research Lee and took the information he gathered to the next logical step: finding a way for future generations to remember the provost marshal of Atlanta who saved the archives of the state of Georgia.
“It’s a really incredible story,” Mitchell said. “And he’s a real fascinating guy for the city of Rome.”
Mitchell said Lee is tied up in Rome history for his part in defending Rome against the raid lead by Union Col. Abel Streight in 1863 in an attempt to gain control of northern Alabama and Northwest Georgia.
The raid failed as Streight’s men made their way from Gadsden, Ala., and were later captured by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
After the war Lee also was responsible for forming the first fire department in Rome, according to Mitchell.
Lee died in 1879 a pauper, and though he was buried among the Confederate veterans in Myrtle Hill, he wasn’t provided with a grave marker. “He’s buried here, and that’s just one more thing that makes Rome unique,” Mitchell said. “This is one of the things we need to be more aware of, particularly with the sesquicentennial going on. We need to be very cognitive about saying nice and positive things about the people who served our state with such honor and dignity.”
Mostly though, Mitchell hopes, that with the marker now bearing the name of George Washington Lee, future generations will be reminded of what he accomplished.
“It very important that we do stuff like this, because if we don’t do stuff like this we’re not going to have it in the future,” he said. “I found out about this through a complete fluke. I’m very excited to have this because 100 years from now when no one here today will be around, this will still, and that’s pretty neat.”
Lee’s marker can be found on the far end of the Confederate section next to the entrance of Myrtle Hill Cemetery from Myrtle Street.