All researchers know that, at any moment, the discovery of the least little thread of evidence could suddenly change something they’ve worked on for years. This is exactly what happened a few months ago. I’ve known Bill Smedlund for about eight years now. Bill is one of those unique people who can stay on track with a project no matter where it takes him or for how long it takes. When I first met Bill, he was researching Athens’s famous Troup Artillery, that elite artillery group that was a part of Tom Cobb’s famous Georgia Legion. Bill and I stay in touch periodically with shared questions and information.
A couple of months ago, Bill called to ask me something on one of his latest chapters about the Troup Artillery (the book is due out soon) and during our conversation he breezed through a statement: “… and you know this is the same guy who painted the portrait of Lucy Cobb.”
At the same moment I caught the tail end of what he had just hit me with, sixty kids were coming through the front door of the museum and needed my immediate attention. Reluctantly excusing myself from the phone conversation, I was relieved when Bill said he would send me a couple of articles he had recently uncovered in one of the state’s newspapers. My wait was impatient: It arrived a few days later — I don’t know why the mail can’t make it out of the North Carolina mountains any quicker. Apparently, it must have come by horseback.
Inside the packet, was a short twocolumn newspaper copy of an article published in the Atlanta Journal on September 19, 1898. The article was written by one, “C.J. Oliver, Chaplain of the Troup Artillery and later of Cabell’s Battalion of Artillery.” The article was entitled “A Reminiscence of the Civil War.”
So, just who was this C.J. Oliver? I made a quick phone call to my “source of sources,” Charlotte Marshall, who has forgotten more about Athens’s history than anyone else will ever know. (Well, actually, she hasn’t forgotten any of it.) Charlotte quickly informed me that C.J. Oliver was Charles James Oliver.
Oliver was born 1831 in Warwick, England. He came with his parents to New York soon after his birth and lived for some time there and in New Jersey. At the age of nine, he and his parents moved south to Athens, where the children could take advantage of the educational opportunities. Charles’s father was a painter, and, while working on a plaster frieze in one of the buildings at Franklin College, he suffered a fall and never fully recovered from the injuries sustained.
We know very little about Oliver’s early life in Athens, but he considered Tom Cobb a “friend of my boyhood.” Oliver apparently tried following in his father’s footsteps as a painter. He mentioned in the 1898 article that as a favor to Tom Cobb and for the Presbyterian Church he “painted … my only attempt at actual fresco, an imitation of heavy open screen work, to give the effect of a recess, behind the pulpit.” So, at one time, some of Oliver’s work was on display at the Presbyterian Church on Hancock Avenue.
What Oliver says next, however, really made me sit back and take notice. Later in the article Oliver mentions, in passing, that, “For him [Tom Cobb], when under much persuasion and pressure, I determined to try the life of an artist. I painted my first and only public picture, a portrait of the lamented Lucy Cobb.”
You’ve got to be kidding. We’ve been trying to figure out who the artist was who painted this portrait, which is not signed, for the past nine years. Now, here it is staring me in the face!
Oliver, though, doesn’t stop there. “It was promptly condemned by the critics … He wanted to pay and I determined not to receive. Later on, when balancing up, I found he had pressed into my pocket 13 T.R.R. Cobb House The Legacy in small balances the amount of $26. He would always have his way.”
Another memory given by Oliver within the article says that, “When the war broke out I was slowly coming southward — New York, Richmond, Raleigh, and Charlotte. In the latter place … I found my position precarious… ‘Couldn’t people see that this fellow was a foreigner?’ I had just returned from a trip to England — and ‘a Union man.’ There were some mutterings of a coming storm, and I could see dark spots in the floating future, possibly flecked with blood. Colonel T.R.R. Cobb having formed his legion, had sent them through by Wilmington and came himself, with Terry Lampkin, by way of Charlotte. He reached there late in the afternoon. I had determined in favor of the artillery — now was my time. I hastened after supper to the hotel and found him in the crowd. ‘Why, Charlie, you here? Going to prayer meeting; that’s like you. I ought to go with you, but I’ve got this National Presbyterian interest on my hands and heart just now. I know you will excuse me.’ Later — ‘So you will come to me in Virginia and join the Troup artillery! I’m glad of it. I’ll tell Carlton you’re coming to him. Good-bye, and God bless you!’ The next morning my fame rose with the sun. The popular mist cleared away. I was ‘the bosom friend of General Cobb.’ ‘What could people have been thinking about?’ The general seems to have known him all his life, and talked to him like a brother!”
The rest of the story on Charles James Oliver is that he was “determined in favor of the artillery.” He joined the Troup Artillery August 6, 1862, and stayed with the unit throughout the war, even after the absorption of the Troup Artillery into Cabell’s Battalion of Artillery. In the artillery, Oliver led the life of a soldierchaplain delivering sermons, conducting prayer-meetings and raising money for various causes. He married his second wife, Nannie Amelia Reeves shortly after he returned from the war. Oliver became a Methodist minister, serving Burke County in 1866. In 1867, he worked for the sailor’s mission in Savannah. His wife died in 1868 at the age of 21, while giving birth to a son. By this time, he was working for another mission, this time in Atlanta. He withdrew from the ministry soon after and became a home decorator and contractor, working for the prominent Inman family in Atlanta. He is reported to have painted the inside of the state capitol and was the founder of Evans Chapel, which later became Walker Street Church that eventually divided into the Peachtree Road and Mary Brannon Methodist Churches. He also taught at the Trinity Home Mission on Ella Street. He remarried to Frances Pound Shropshire and died at the age of 83 in 1914 in Atlanta. He is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens.