Last week a project was announced to try and located lost graves of Union soldiers who had been buried in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus during and at the close of the Civil War.
These graves are very significant, not just as graves of American heroes but for the role they played in the creation of the Memorial Day holiday we are about to celebrate. It’s sad that much of the real meaning of Memorial Day has been supplanted by backyard parties and barbecues.
Those lost graves, and the story they tell, are the real meaning of Memorial Day. They are American heroes who gave their lives for this country and rest beside other heroes. Though once these soldiers fought on opposite sides, they are all Americans. That reconciliation of North and South truly began with the simple act of ladies in Columbus, Mississippi, placing flowers on the graves of all soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery, Union and Confederate.
More than 24 cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. The decoration of soldiers’ graves with flowers had long been a common practice.
In Columbus the decoration of Confederate graves had begun in 1863. Two years later, there was a ceremony by freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, honoring Union soldiers buried there. Such decoration days were occurring in many towns. The suggestion for a single day, April 26, 1866, for towns across the South to decorate Confederate graves came from a committee of ladies in Columbus, Georgia. The Richmond Examiner of March 22, 1866, reported movements had begun by ladies associations in Winchester, Virginia; Columbus, Georgia; and across the South to care for and “garland those tombs of the heroic and dear with all that is beautiful and fragrant.” It was to make the graves “a land of flowers.”
April 26 was reported as being chosen, as it was the day Confederate General Johnston had surrendered and was thus a fitting day to commemorate lost loved ones.
I do not believe any one place can claim credit for Memorial Day. It evolved out of a common practice of placing flowers on soldiers’ graves, not just honoring the fallen brave but becoming an instrument of reconciliation for a war-torn nation. Columbus was not the only place where flowers were placed as a healing act on graves of both northern and southern soldiers. Columbus’ Decoration Day ceremony on April 25, 1866, was probably a misreading of the ladies association in Columbus, Georgia, calling for such ceremonies across the south on April 26. In Macon, Georgia, on April 26 both Union and Confederate graves were decorated with flowers, and I have also found a report of that happening in Columbus, Georgia.
Officially, Waterloo, New York, has been recognized as the birthplace of Memorial Day based on a celebration there in May 1868 after a proclamation issued by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic — the Union veterans organization. That proclamation, though, only called for the decoration of Union graves. In 1877 the organization, using language taken from the poem “The Blue and the Gray,” which honored the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, decreed that all graves Union and Confederate should be decorated.
What was the role of Columbus, Mississippi, and the graves in Friendship Cemetery in the beginnings of Memorial Day? During the Civil War, Columbus was a major Confederate hospital center and more than 2,100 Confederate soldiers, and at least 51 Union soldiers, died and were buried here. All of the Confederate soldiers, and all but nine of the Union, were buried in Friendship Cemetery. Thirty-two Union soldiers were removed from Friendship Cemetery to Corinth National Cemetery in October 1867. In 1877 some unmarked Union graves remained and were still being decorated by ladies of Columbus.
The decoration both of Union and Confederate graves with flowers first occurred in Columbus on April 25, 1866, with a commemoration organized by Ms. Mat Morton, Mrs. Jane Fontaine, Mrs. Green Hill and Mrs. Augusta Sykes. That act of reconciliation and compassion struck a chord with the national press, and the story of Friendship was told across the country.
The Lancaster (Ohio) Gazette on May 24, 1866, cited the Zanesville (Ohio) Courier in reporting on the “ceremony” in Friendship Cemetery: “If this be true and there seems to be little room to doubt it, the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, have set a noble example worthy of imitation by all. Let it be told wherever news is told, in commemoration of them, and that all may be incited to go and do likewise.”
Then on May 26, 1866, a news item in the Raleigh, N.C., Weekly Standard described the ceremony at Friendship Cemetery and concluded by saying, “This act elicits the approval of the press of that city, which claims that the war being over, no distinction should be made between the departed heroes of opposing sides.” The same article had appeared in the Petersburg, Virginia, Express. A correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial called it a “simple incident of unselfishness and womanly delicacy.”
In Lexington County, Missouri, the weekly newspaper there on June 27, 1866, commented: “Like an oasis in the desert was that pleasing incident which is recorded in the Columbus Index. …This tender Christian act … kindles a spark of hope that we may, at some future time, become in heart one people. … May God bless the kind hearted ladies of Columbus.”
The idea of a memorial day did not originate at Friendship Cemetery, but the compassionate actions of the ladies of Columbus captured the nation’s heart and inspired Memorial Day’s creation. Their action continued to inspire as shown by this May 29, 1869, article in the Maine Farmer of Augusta, Maine: “2 years ago it was stated that the women of Columbus, Mississippi, showed themselves impartial in the offerings which they made to the memory of the dead; for they strewed flowers alike on the graves of the confederate and national soldiers. All will remember the beautiful poem of ‘The Blue and the Gray,’ written in commemoration of this incident. Let others emulate this spirit. … Thus may the ceremonial of ‘Decoration Day’ become a truly national one, and do much to remove any lingering vestiges of heart burning, and to bring all sections of ‘our common country’ into harmonious and fraternal relations with each other.” More recently the Columbus Ladies’ act of compassion and role in Memorial Day was recognized by President Obama in his 2010 Memorial Day Address.
Memorial Day began as a day to honor those who sacrificed their lives insuring that we remain a free people. We should never forget their sacrifice.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.