A Historic Home's Journey and Georgia's Traumatic Past ; as the Antebellum Home of a Confederate Hero Is Saved from Obscurity, a Deep Ambivalence in the Old South Is Reawakened, Too

By Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Historic Home's Journey and Georgia's Traumatic Past ; as the Antebellum Home of a Confederate Hero Is Saved from Obscurity, a Deep Ambivalence in the Old South Is Reawakened, Too


Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Pious and persnickety, T.R.R. Cobb - the Confederate general and slavery apologist - lived his life to the strictest of codes. But his house may have been his one attempt at whimsy: Like so many old mansions of Athens, it was a playful, even gaudy, amalgam of Federal and Greek Revival styles: two octagonal wings strapped together by a colonnade.

By the time the house was moved in 1985 to make room for a church parking lot, it had fallen, like Cobb's ideas, into disrepair. "It was a rotten house," says Athens artist June Ball, who shared one room with a flock of pigeons for a short stretch.

Even some of Cobb's relatives say the house - tucked into a remote corner of Stone Mountain for 19 years - isn't worth a nickel. But as it returns piece by piece to Athens this month, preservationists say it's not just a victory for the city's inventory of Antebellum homes, but a chance for Athenians to confront the founders of their own "city on the hill."

"It shouldn't be a celebration of slavery, but an opportunity to interpret slavery and the conditions under which it flourished," says Hans Neuhauser, director of the Georgia Land Trust Service Center and neighbor to the project. "The fact is, it's a subject that Southerners are still reluctant to talk about."

In many ways, Cobb typifies the struggle between modern Athens and its legacy. Historians call him a great legal mind, founder of the University of Georgia's law school and a girls' finishing school. He was the first to systematize 19th century laws in a form that was ultimately copied nationwide. In the process, he became the intellectual force of the South's secession - and a chief author of the Confederate Constitution. He was among a group of Athenians - including Confederate States of America (CSA) Vice President Alexander Stephens and Sen. Robert Toombs - who helped codify Old South values. He died defending those traditions at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

"He lived his life like a law code," says Emory Thomas, a retired University of Georgia historian. "He was constantly aware of rules, regulations, and taboos."

Though Cobb's Code was swept aside, Athens still exports ideas. The first US congresswoman, Jeanette Rankin, came from here, as did Eugene Odom, father of ecology. …

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