A 250-Acre Hill of History

Nashville’s history is buried in 250-acres of dirt right off Lebanon Pike.

Outlined by the industrial side of Nashville lies a hill with the words “Mt. Olivet” spelled out in white-faced stones.

Behind those stones are the remains of some of Nashville’s most prominent leaders, Civil War heroes and regular folk. Mt. Olivet may not be the oldest cemetery in Nashville, but it is arguably the most notable. It is one of the most historical cemeteries in the city and serves as Nashville’s record since 1856.

“Mt. Olivet’s rolling land, old historical section, the totality in size, the variety of internments and its historical values, specifically the Civil War, makes it act more like a park than a cemetery,” said Harvey Jinnette, Mt. Olivet’s Funeral Assistant.

The undulating landscape, carved through with curved paths, irregularly shaped plats, outlined with branching oaks and lavish statuary is loaded with slates of history.

“Mt. Olivet Cemetery is the most prestigious and the most handsome cemetery in Nashville,” said local historian Ridley Wells, in his book, A Walking Tour of Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Mt. Olivet came into existence due to space limitations of The City Cemetery, acclaimed as Nashville’s final resting place in 1822. In just three decades, the city slowly began to take over that cemetery because the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad mainline was built just beyond the cemetery’s edge. The rapid growth of suburbia and urban development left little room for expansion. The cemetery couldn’t keep up, leaving businessmen with the opportunity to establish a significantly larger cemetery residing a more substantial distance from the city.

Mt. Olivet then and now operates as the final resting place for some of Nashville’s most prominent figures, an estimated 190,000 as well as fine works of monumental art.

the winnerMore than 1,500 Civil War soldiers rest in peace, in ceasefire, around the famous Confederate Circle.

Row after row, aisle after aisle, these battle-scarred generals, infantry and artillery soldiers stand at attention – for eternity.

These once weary soldiers surround a 45-foot tall, 16-foot wide granite obelisk. A 9-foot tall confederate soldier tops the massive structure, replete in uniform, overlooking what used to be the battlefield. Two confederate flags mark the corners of the massive obelisk.

Carved on the sides of the monument reads, “for the unreturning brave.”

The obelisk is encircled by 13 rings of soldier’s graves. The first six rings hold Confederate soldiers from outside Tennessee and the outer circles hold the graves of Tennessean soldiers.

The seventh ring holds the graves of unknown, unnamed soldiers.Untitled2

These of civil war soldiers no longer await orders from their general. Instead, stationed permanently in this perpetual watch, they guard the 250-acres of history, their stories discernable only by their weathering, yet everlasting slabs of concrete. Remembered only by their name, birth and death year.

The Confederate Circle is a memorial to honor of the lives lost in sacrifice to war.

The imposing Confederate Circle monument rests on the highest circular burial ground and watches over the entire cemetery.

To the northeast of the Confederate Circle, on the northern edge of the cemetery, following the meandering roads stands Section 1, the oldest and most historical neighborhood of graves in Mt. Olivet.

Take a left on the paved road next to the Confederate Circle and prepare to witness the most grandeur of graves.

“This,” said Smith, “is the money. All the money stayed with money.”

Obelisks, family mausoleums, granite monuments and marble statuary appear around the bend of the winding road. Winding through the graves lay preserved, unpaved, grass ways, used in the 19th century, by horse drawn hearses to reach gravesites not accessible by road.

Section 1 mimics a rich, privileged neighborhood except instead of two story estates or plantations, stand marble and granite graves.

On the old historical hill, social norms of the 19th century remain preserved. Affluence persists. The majority of the remarkable markers remain in pristine condition even after more than 150 years.

These neighbors come from a range of professions – lawyers, politicians, governors, bank directors, to builders, brick makers, to presidents of the railroad company, merchants, steamboat captains and many more. The success of these historical, accomplished figures show through the magnificence of their graves.

Here read their stories:

Here lies Anne Dallas Dudley, a civic leader and key player in the women’s suffrage movement in the 1900’s. Her role was instrumental in ratifying the 19th amendment.

Here lies Percy Lea Warner. Thanks to the gracious Percy Lea and her husband, they donated much of the land now known as Percy Warner Park.

Here lies the McGavock family, one of Nashville’s most distinguished families of the 19th century. They rests in the white marble mausoleum. McGavock High School honors their family name to this day.

On the very edge of the cemetery facing due north lays a pyramid crypt fronted by two sphinxes that guard the less remembered, Eugene C.S. Lewis, the director general of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897. Lewis is the reason a replica of the Parthenon lies in Centennial Park.

“His name would live as long as America’s history,” reads the inscription on the tomb of John Bell, a man who ran for presidency on the Constitutional Union Party ticket and carried the favor of three states – Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Adelicia Acklen, perhaps one of the most significant burials at Mt. Olive, rests in peace in her gothic-styled Acklen mausoleum. The bronze doors, laden with rusting roses of time, encloses the famous statue, The Peri, who illustrates an epic poem, “Paradise,” written by Thomas Moore. The statues holds three tears in its right palm, symbolizing the tears of the penitent sinner. She also led one of the greatest escapades during the Civil War – the moving of 2,800 bails of cotton to hide from soldiers and the greedy.

Acklen broke the barriers of gender stereotypes and became one of the richest women during pre-civil war in the U.S. She remained in control of the business following her husband’s death adding more to her wealth. Acklen rests in the eternal sleep with two of her three husbands.

On the far southwestern corner, on top of a hill, the transgression of history through time continue – in the background the elaborate granite crypts, tombs and obelisks, in the middle the standard mid-sized headstones, and in the foreground the modern day gardens where people are still buried.

The   gravestones tell the stories of their lives after death.

In just a year, Mt. Olivet will celebrate its 160th anniversary and will continue to create a complete history through the people buried there for many years to come.