On Saturday the process of dismantling and moving the Confederate monument that has stood in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse since 1912 began.
It was last July when the city and county began looking for another location for the monument. It was determined the most appropriate place to move it was next to the oldest section of Confederate graves at Friendship Cemetery.
Because the seemingly vacant area was possibly the last resting place of Union soldiers in unmarked graves, extra care had to be taken to insure that unmarked graves would not be disturbed.
The monument itself was an early 1900s project of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was intended to be a memorial to those Confederate soldiers from Lowndes County who had died during the war. The original plan was to put it on Main Street and not at the courthouse. When the preferred sites on Main were unavailable, it was decided to temporarily place it at the courthouse until a better location was available.
As late as 1921 there was an article in The Commercial Dispatch about the monument’s courthouse location having been temporary and possibly moving the monument. Funds were raised to move the monument to a location in the middle of Main Street, but the city council refused to allow the move as the monument in the middle of Main would interfere with “growing traffic of the uptown district.” It was then decided to leave the monument in front of the courthouse.
In reviewing possible sites at Friendship for the monument, an open space to the west of the south Confederate burial plot looked promising. That Confederate section contained 914 graves buried two to each marker. However, old newspaper accounts of Decoration Day stated there were still a few unmarked Federal graves in that area.
During the Civil War Columbus became a major hospital center with three large hospitals. Of those who died here, more than 2,100 Confederate and about 41 Federal soldiers were buried in Friendship Cemetery. Thirty-two of the Federal graves were removed to Corinth National Cemetery in 1867. The remaining Federal graves were unmarked. As the graves were unmarked, over the years the exact location of the graves was forgotten. These were the Federal soldiers whose graves continued to be decorated along with the Confederate graves on Decoration Day by the ladies of Columbus through 1919.
Columbus newspaper accounts of Decoration Day in 1877 record some Federal graves remained at Friendship Cemetery and were still being decorated by ladies of Columbus. The Federal graves were described as being without headstones and in the “far corner of the cemetery.” That ceremony was at the 1873 memorial marker midway between the two Confederate sections. Standing at that spot, the far corner of the cemetery is the open space near the south Confederate plot. As late as 1919 those Federal graves were still being decorated with the Confederate graves on Decoration Day.
In October 2017, field work took place on a project to locate the lost Federal graves. The Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi employed non-invasive remote sensing technologies, including ground penetrating radar, to search for the graves. Though hundreds of graves, not necessarily matching headstones, showed up there was nothing conclusive about the area where the Confederate monument was to be moved.
These lost graves are especially significant for the role they played as an inspiration for the creation of Memorial Day, which evolved out of ideas and ceremonies in many towns across the United States. The claims of Columbus, Georgia, and Waterloo, New York, both have some validity. The role of Friendship Cemetery appears not to be where the idea originated but to have been the national inspiration for a Day of Reconciliation and remembrance.
In 1866 the New York Tribune reported, “The women of Columbus, Mississippi, have shown themselves impartial in their offerings made to the memory of the dead. They strewed flowers alike on the graves of the Confederate and of the National soldiers.” That account inspired Francis Miles Finch to write a poem, “The Blue and the Gray,” which was published in the September 1867 Atlantic Monthly and dedicated to the ladies of Columbus. That act of compassion by the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, was recognized by President Obama in his 2010 Memorial Day Address.
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 Confederate heroes. Though once these soldiers fought on opposite sides, they all share the same sacred earth. The reconciliation of North and South began with the simple act of ladies in Columbus, Mississippi, placing flowers on the graves of all soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery, Federal and Confederate. It is a historic place and a place where monuments tell a sad story but a story, we all should hear.
While the site next the Confederate graves looked like the best site for the monument, there were still questions as to whether there were unmarked graves there. The problem was solved by an archaeologist from the State Department of Archives and History being present when the ground was prepared for the construction of a base for the monument. As topsoil was removed the area was closely examined for any sign of disturbance or discoloration indicating graves. When the examination showed the ground undisturbed and that no graves had been there, a base for the monument was constructed.
I understand the opposition to the monument being moved, but I also know it will be in the best and most historic place it could be moved to. It is a historic spot that preserves its original intent not to be something that might be divisive but to be a memorial to those who had died.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]