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The 'special relationship' - Georgia and the remains of General Oglethorpe.

On Sunday, October 10, in the Victorian parish church of All Saints, in Cranham, Essex one of those little ceremonies that mark and perpetuate the |special relationship' between Britain and America will take place. On this autumn Sunday representatives of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia will read proclamations, lay roses and place a laurel wreath on the tomb of General James Edward Oglethorpe, revered in America as the founder of the Colony of Georgia. On the same day a memorial service will be held at the University campus in Atlanta, the state capital. The joint ceremonies will also commemorate the efforts of the man without whom these ceremonies would not take place. Ultimately the special relationship between Britain and America is as much between peoples with a shared heritage as between nations with a shared history.

GENERAL James Oglethorpe (1696-1785), never regarded the American outpost as his home. Oglethorpe, the leader among the Trustees charged with administering the colony, arrived with the original body of colonists in 1733 at Yamacraw Bluff near the site of Savannah on the Georgia coast. About a year and a half later, in June 1734, he returned to England with eight Yamacraw Indians in tow. The trip was a political and public relations success, and in 1736, Oglethorpe returned to the town he bad founded, Savannah, armed with increased assurances of British support for the new colony named in honour of King George II. Late that year, the founder of Georgia went back to London again--this time with military matters in the forefront of his attention. Back in Georgia in 1738, the general arrived at Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island in September. Following two years of inconclusive military action, in 1742 Oglethorpe was victorious in turning a Spanish invasion attempt at the pivotal Battle of Bloody Marsh. The following year, with the threat from the south apparently eliminated and with the colony solidly, if somewhat factiously, established, James Oglethorpe left Georgia for the last time. Back home in England, Oglethorpe married the wealthy Elizabeth Wright and settled on her ancestral estate, Cranham Hall, in Essex, about sixteen miles outside London. Oglethorpe's fame as a colonizer had reached its zenith in 1743, and his exploits as a military leader were confined to his Fort Frederica days. He spent most of the next forty years quietly as a country gentleman who often visited the London literati, especially his friend, Samuel Johnson.

In 1785, at age eighty-eight, General Oglethorpe died, and his wife had him buried in the family vault under the chancel of the ancient parish church of All Saints in Cranham. Two years later, Elizabeth Oglethorpe died and was laid to rest beside her husband. Before her death, Elizabeth showed the foresight to have a large plaque extolling her husband's achievements engraved and mounted on the wall of All Saints Church. In the ensuing 130 years, memory and recognition of James Oglethorpe's accomplishments faded in his native England, if not in the American state that was his legacy. A great tribute to the general came in Atlanta in 1913 with the revival of Oglethorpe University. Originally established near Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1835, the institution had folded during the Civil War. The key figure in the university's twentieth-century reestablishment was its president, Dr. Thornwell Jacobs.

The energetic college president, who ardently studied the life of his institution's namesake, in 1922 undertook a trip to England to visit key sites associated with Oglethorpe. Jacobs attended a conference at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where an irregularly attending Oglethorpe was on the rolls from 1714 to 1727. Jacobs was sorely disappointed to discover that the college had neither a memorial to nor a portrait of its distinguished honorary alumnus. Even more distressing to the American educator was his realization that the exact location of the Georgia founder's tomb was no longer known, due to the demolition and reconstruction of All Saints Church. Jacobs sadly concluded that the memory of James Oglethorpe 'had sunk into utter oblivion in England'. Thornwell Jacobs was so devastated by his experience in England that, upon his return to Georgia in 1922, he conceived a bold plan: to discover the precise location of Oglethorpe's grave, exhume it for archaeological study, and transport the body to Atlanta for reinterment in a memorial at Jacobs's beloved university. The scheme would require considerable money, which Jacobs was confident that he could obtain, and permission of British authorities, which might prove to be a more formidable obstacle.

To gain access to key people in England before his return visit in the summer of 1923, Jacobs used the offices of the Governor of Georgia, Clifford Walker, Congressman W. D. Upshaw, and the Department of State. Through United States Consul-General R. D. Skinner, Jacobs learned that the legal custody of anyone buried in a parish church was subject to ecclesiastical authority. Jacobs, therefore, forwarded his petition to the Rector of All Saints Church, the Reverend Leslie Wright. The Rector was sympathetic to the quest and referred the petition to the Reverend E. B. Charles, Chancellor of the diocese of Chelmsford. By August 10, 1923, Charles had formally and publicly rejected Jacobs's petition for an |exploratory faculty', or ecclesiastical authorization. The chancellor's stated reason was that excavations would cause extensive disturbance to the church building--a particular problem because there was |no certainty that the remains are there'. The chancellor clarified his rejection about a month later, citing that |so far as was known, the present church of Cranham is not built on the same ground plan as the former one, [and) it [is] not possible to say exactly where any particular remains ... lie'. The Chancellor was in fact correct; at the time Charles made his ruling, there seemed no way to know with certainty the location of the Oglethorpe tomb. The official list of Rectors for All Saints Church goes back to 1310, and the parish registers date from 1558. By 1873, however, the ancient structure was in dilapidated condition, and an order had been issued to demolish it and to rebuild |a new church on the old site or as near thereto as possible'. The reconstruction authorization directed the parish to |remove all monuments and mural tablets' and to replace them in the new building as soon as possible. The task was quickly accomplished, and the new All Saints was in place by 1875.

Sometime in the nearly fifty years between the reconstruction and Jacobs's visit, the architectural plans had been mislaid. Local oral tradition, confirmed by interviews conducted by Jacobs and the ecclesiastical authorities, held that the original church had been deliberately destroyed by fire and that the new structure had been built near, but not precisely upon, the old foundations. If this were true, the family crypts that had been carefully placed under the old chancel might be located anywhere under or possibly beyond the new floor. Jacobs realized that he could not pursue his petition any further unless he could produce convincing evidence that identified the precise spot where the Oglethorpe remains rested. People seemed for the most part puzzled at Jacobs's stubborn insistence at finding the Oglethorpe tomb; but in September 1923 the American educator's considerable eloquence appeared to have persuaded some influential people to his cause. Jacobs pointed out that General Oglethorpe was only one of perhaps 100,000 great Englishmen, but to Georgians, the founder was a uniquely revered figure. Oglethorpe, Jacobs averred in a statement to the Romford Recorder, |represented all that is best in Georgia's founding, history and traditions'. The Brentwood Gazette and Mid-Essex Recorder indulgently conceded: |When ... an appeal is made to us to cement the bonds between the mother country and one of the younger but vigorous countries which value the connection, it is difficult to put any obstacle in the way'. The London Daily Chronicle became convinced that |no more romantic errand has ever been undertaken by an American than that of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs'.

For about six weeks, the determined university president looked through old records and archaeological reports. He particularly examined the church's foundations in relation to tombstones in the graveyard outside the church. Jacobs observed that the oldest grave sites on the north and east sides, antecedent to the rebuilding of the church, were so close to the walls of the building as to appear undisturbed. As a result of his research, Jacobs became convinced, contrary to the accepted folklore in Cranham, that the new All Saints was in fact built on the same foundations as the old church. Jacobs presented his new findings in a second petition, and in light of the additional evidence, the Chancellor reversed his previous ruling. On October 8, 1923, the chancellor concluded: |The present church was raised upon the [old] foundations so that the dimensions ... are the same as before ... So let the faculty issue'. The elated Dr. Jacobs finally began his excavations of the Oglethorpe tomb on October 9, 1923. Workers spent the better part of the day removing a section of the church's tiled floor and more than six inches of stone masonry. In the grim October weather, the sky was dark with drizzling rain. J. A. Mills, an Associated Press correspondent, noted that the solemn stillness of the place was broken only by the twitter of birds or the occasional bark of a dog. The main sounds were the staccato echoes of hammers and chisels. As evening light approached, weird shadows filtered in feebly through the stained glass. Around the yawning hole in the floor of the church were picks and shovels lit by a number of candles that cast fitful light on the pale, tense face of Jacobs. By late afternoon, a probe showed that underneath the concrete sub-floor was something solid, which Jacobs speculated was the brick cover of the vault. On the morning of October 10, the workmen began to remove bricks that looked fresh and almost new. Underneath was a crypt. Workers finished the enlargement of the opening by about 4.30 p.m. The Associated Press correspondent reported the dialogue of the moving scene:

Suddenly, one of the excavators cried . . . |There it is!' It was the

coffin of General Oglethorpe. |Can you read the name plate?' asked

Dr. Jacobs in hushed tones. |Yes, it says "The Honourable General

Oglethorpe. Died first July, 1786 [sic]".' Dr. Jacobs's eyes moistened.

His face was eloquently expressive of gratitude, emotion and

pride. But he was too moved to speak. He stood transfigured as if

in another realm. He expected no such dramatic revelation of the

earth's secrets in so short a time. |You have made history',

remarked the kindly Rector of the Church, the Rev. Leslie Wright,

without whose assistance, sympathy and encouragement the American's

mission would have failed.

Thornwell Jacobs then lowered himself into the crypt under the floor of All Saints. He saw, in the glimmer of candlelight, what seemed to be gold and silver lacework on two long, dark coffins that lay side by side at the bottom of the valut. As the awed Jacobs stood in the vault, he realized he was |nearer to James Edward Oglethorpe than any living Georgian had been'. Dr. Jacobs then invited the Rector down into the crypt to make the official positive identification. When Jacobs returned to the chancel, the Associated Press correspondent covering the story requested a statement, and Dr. Jacobs solemnly declared: |James Edward Oglethorpe is no longer a bit of dust or a group of relics'. Jacobs then made the prediction that Oglethorpe was |about to become the most dominant personality in the state of Georgia'. He probably did not realize how soon, and in what manner, his prediction would come true. Thornwell Jacobs later wrote that he would never forget the scene in the little church when the vault was uncovered. He vividly remembered 'the sense of reverence and affection' that swept over his soul as he read the name of Oglethorpe on the plate of the coffin and that of his wife, Elizabeth, who rested by his side. Jacobs even wrote a poem to commemorate the triumphant occasion. Entitled |Who is This That Cometh to Disturb My Rest?' the opening and closing stanzas read as follows:

Oglethorpe, awake, it is we!

From Georgia, thy Georgia, dost recall?

Great Oglethorpe, awake from visioned sleep!

All thou hast dreamed is true!

At last, thy morning dawns

And thou dost rise, a King!

Jacobs was confident that James Oglethorpe's remains could be disinterred from Cranham and be moved across the Atlantic Ocean to be reburied in reconsecrated ground in a monument at the general's namesake university. Indeed, the chancellor's |faculty to search' had added that 'if as a result of the excavations of the remains of General Oglethorpe are found [,] a further Petition will be made for the remains to be allowed to pass across the seas into the bosom of Georgia'. According to ecclesiastical law, Jacobs's petition was posted to the church door at Cranham, where it was to remain for eight days. The Chancellor would convene a diocesan court to render a final decision. Since the tenor of Charles's previous judgement had been favourable, Jacobs was probably optimistic. At first, there was little opposition in England to Jacobs's plan. |So far as the general public were concerned', one London newspaper noted, |the utmost solemnity was observed'. Meanwhile, in Georgia and throughout much of the American South, anticipation was high concerning Jacobs's proposal to re-inter the Oglethorpe remains in Atlanta. On October 13, 1923, Dr. Lucian Lamar Knight, the official state historian of Georgia, wrote to Judge Edgar Watkins of the Oglethorpe University Board of Trustees: |I consider the accomplishment of Dr. Jacobs the greatest thing that has been done for the State of Georgia since it has been a commonwealth'. Knight noted that Georgia would be the first state in the nation's history to have its founder enshrined within its borders.

Despite the early acceptance, Jacobs's plan soon met with opposition. The discussions on the final disposition of the remains first regressed into a two-sided argument that almost resembled comic opera and to which Dr. Jacobs did not deign to respond. Some historically minded citizens of Savannah contended that if there were to be reinterment of the city's founder, then Georgia's first capital city would be the more appropriate site. Mr. Noble Jones, formerly of Savannah, presented to the State Department a formal resolution from the Sons of Colonial Wars protesting Jacob's petition to remove the Oglethorpe remains. The State Department declined to forward the protest to England because Governor Clifford Walker refused to support it. Walker believed that most Georgians wished Oglethorpe's remains to be moved to the state. Former Georgia Senator Hoke Smith visited the State Department in Washington in order to endorse Thornwell Jacob's plans for the Oglethorpe remains. With such support from Georgia's power structure, United States Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes officially adopted a policy that was in full sympathy with Jacobs. But Thornwell Jacobs was profoundly embarrassed. |Overnight the whole plan had degenerated', he later ruefully wrote, |from a dignified and reverent request of a University ... and became a scramble over dead bones between two American cities'. The unseemly American controversy quickly led to British outrage over the treatment of James Oglethorpe. |What has he [Oglethorpe] done to deserve this?' queried the letter of one angry Briton, who deplored the |punishment of removing him from his resting place ... to the United States'. Particularly effective was a signed cablegram opposing the reinterment from the Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, the Rt. Rev. Frederick F. Reese, a Savannah native. His protest, directed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson was widely published in England. Jacobs was astonished at the numerous insults that he had to endure from British newspapers. The Daily Express indignantly charged that |the whole affair is an Atlanta college stunt' and deplored |American bodysnatchers'. The Evening Standard regarded the scheme as |unaccountable effrontery even from Americans'. The paper mocked Jacobs, declaring that he had |committed sacrilege to make a student's holiday'. On October 16, only six days after his discovery of the Oglethorpe tomb, Jacobs deferred to the arguments against removal of the coffins. He notified the people of Atlanta with a published cablegram, in which he stated that the |courteous and proper thing to do was to withdraw the request'. In defence of his original intentions, Jacobs's statement declared that his |one actuating motive' had been his |deepest love and affection for the Founder of Georgia to whom after the lapse of two centuries England has raised no monument'.

Although he privately believed that some of the sensational British press accounts of the plans to remove the Oglethorpe remains were 'as yellow as the fifth ribbon of the rainbow', Jacobs was exceedingly graceful in his final public concession. He expressed no bitterness in his October 20, 1923, farewell message, stating, |I leave England only with the kindliest of feelings'. Thus it was resolved not to move the Oglethorpe graves. All Saints Cranham made plans to seal the vault |with the same care and reverence with which it was opened,' and the tomb would |remain under the continued supervision of the rector'. The reinterment plan remained something of a cause celebre during the week after Jacobs abandoned his plans. Seemingly, almost every south-eastern newspaper took an editorial stand on the issue. Most editors sympathized with Jacobs. The Atlanta Journal, for example, accorded |all honour to Dr. Jacobs for the magnificent vision and also for forgoing it rather than be the innocent occasion of a controversy for which he is not responsible'. When Dr. Thornwell Jacobs left England on October 23, 1923, he was escorted to Waterloo Station in London by members of the Oglethorpe family. Ten days later, Jacobs arrived on the Southern Birmingham Special at the old Oglethorpe University train station, which then stood across from the campus on Peachtree Road. The university band greeted President Jacobs's return, and waiting for him in his office was a tribute written by Georgia's state historian, Dr. Lucian Knight: 'Oglethorpe's bones may remain in England; but Dr. Jacobs has brought back to Georgia something better still -- Oglethorpe's soul!'
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Title Annotation:homage paid to General James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the Colony of Georgia, at University of Atlanta on Oct 10
Author:Hudson, Paul Stephen
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:3030
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