Columbus has long claimed to be the inspiration if not the birthplace of Memorial Day.
On April 25, 1866, in a decoration ceremony at Friendship Cemetery, Columbus ladies decorated with flowers the graves of not only the more than 2,100 Confederate soldiers buried there but also, in an act of compassion, placed flowers on the graves of at least 40 Union soldiers buried there.
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 honoring the fallen brave. Columbus was not the only place where flowers were placed as a healing act on graves of both northern and southern soldiers.
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 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.” Ladies in Columbus, Georgia, proposed having a single Decoration Day across the south for the decoration of Confederate graves.
However, it was the act of compassion and reconciliation by the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, that received extensive national praise and inspired the poem “The Blue and the Gray.” Their deed of compassion was covered as an act of national reconciliation by newspapers across the country. That their action continued to inspire is shown by a May 29, 1869, article in the Maine Farmer of Augusta, Maine: “Two 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.”
The act of compassion by the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, was recognized by President Obama in his 2010 Memorial Day Address when he said; ” On April 25, 1866, about a year after the Civil War ended, a group of women visited a cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi, to place flowers by the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at Shiloh. As they did, they noticed other graves nearby, belonging to Union dead. But no one had come to visit those graves, or place a flower there. So they decided to lay a few stems for those men too, in recognition not of a fallen Confederate or a fallen Union soldier, but a fallen American.”
What really happened in Columbus on that day in April, 1866. The newspaper account in the Columbus Index has survived but lesser known are two eye witness descriptions.
Cyrus Green, a Quaker educator, who had come to Columbus with the occupying U.S. troops wrote in his diary:
“[Apr.] 25th: The whites formed a procession today and proceeded to the cemetery and decorated the graves of the soldiers who are buried there. We adjourned school thinking to go and see them but were too late for they were coming home about the time we were ready to start so we did not go. In the evening the Browns and Lucinda Hunt went riding and Kincaid and Mat, Dinah and I went to the cemetery to see the ornamental graves. The decorations did not meet our expectations. There was little more than a small bouquet of flowers dropped on each grave. Some of them had wreaths on them.”
The Columbus Dispatch published a history of that first Decoration Day in its April 24, 1921 edition. It contained a first-person account that had never been published. Augusta Sykes Cox, who has traditionally been credited with suggesting Union graves should also be decorated, had once written a letter to Grace Augusta Ogden, of Atlanta, her granddaughter, describing what had happened on April 25, 1866. Mrs. Ogden provided the letter to the newspaper.
The letter told how: “Just after the first decoration of our Confederate soldiers’ graves, I was on a committee with a dear friend, Miss Matt Morton; and we had a large quantity of flowers in excess of what we needed for our own dead. The graves of the Federal soldiers looked so bare and desolate, I said to my friend, ‘Let’s drop a flower on each of their graves for their Mother’s sakes, each mound represents some Mother’s darling.’ She responded cheerfully, so we led off, followed by a few, but now it has become a custom to remember, the ‘Blue and the Gray,’ and we know Jesus would have us forgive as we hope to be forgiven. He loved everyone, and we are to follow His example, or we cannot be His disciples.”
Where are the graves of those Union soldiers, whose decoration with flowers inspired a nation? Most of the Union soldiers’ remains were moved to Corinth National Cemetery in 1867 but about 10 soldiers remained in unmarked graves. The location of these Union soldiers’ graves was last referred to in 1919 and all that is now known of their location is that it was in the southwest corner of the 1865 cemetery grounds.
Last October a project to locate lost Civil War graves of Union soldiers in Columbus’ Friendship Cemetery took place. It was a joint effort of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi, the U.S. Grant Association and U.S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University, and the Billups-Garth Foundation of Columbus, with assistance from the City of Columbus and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau.
An Ole Miss archaeological team, headed by Dr. Tony Boudreaux and assisted by local historian Gary Lancaster, worked for four days using non-invasive remote sensing technology to produce an image of what is underground. The equipment used included ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer, which measured differences in underground magnetic fields as would be caused by a grave shaft.
The results were inconclusive but very interesting. In their report Stephen G. Harris and Edmond A. Boudreaux III found that the area, in which we believed the Union graves to be “… did not produce any conclusive results. A large anomaly in this area showed up in both the magnetic gradiometer and the GPR. In the mag data this anomaly appears ferrous indicating a possible drainage or pipeline. However, in the GPR data this anomaly appears as several smaller independent anomalies. The exact identification of these anomalies is uncertain, however it is possible that these anomalies are burials.”
Additional remote sensing will be necessary to try and identify what the anomalies are. The Confederate grave plot on the south side of the cemetery was also surveyed. The results there were much clearer and indicate there are probably twice as many graves as headstones.
Those lost Union graves, and the story they tell, are the real meaning of Memorial Day. They are American heroes who gave their lives for their 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. 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.
Thanks to Carolyn Kaye for transcribing the newspaper article from microfilm.