More than 24 cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. As the day to honor and remember those who made the supreme sacrifice for their country, its roots go deep into many places. It evolved out of a common practice of placing flowers on soldiers’ graves.
Columbus was not the only place where flowers were placed as a healing act on graves of Northern and Southern soldiers who died in the Civil War. It was, however, the actions of the Ladies of Columbus whose story was spread nationwide as an example of reconciliation and inspiration.
In Columbus, the decoration of Confederate graves began 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 on 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.” In spring 1866, ladies in Columbus, Georgia, proposed having a single Decoration Day across the South for the decoration of Confederate graves.
Ladies here in Columbus acted on that proposal on April 25. There was a decoration ceremony at Friendship Cemetery where graves of soldiers were decorated with flowers. The ceremony at Friendship went a step further, though. The ladies decorated not only the graves of 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 also buried there.
That act of compassion and reconciliation received extensive praise in the national press and inspired the poem “The Blue and the Gray.” That their action provided a national and lasting inspiration is shown by a May 9, 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.”
In 1868, in Waterloo, New York, Memorial Day began to emerge as a single day of remembrance across the nation to honor our fallen heroes. This evolution of the creation of Memorial Day was recognized by President Obama in his 2010 Memorial Day Address when he concluded the address by saying:
“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. A few years later, an organization of Civil War veterans established what became Memorial Day, selecting a date that coincided with the time when flowers were in bloom. So this weekend, as we commemorate Memorial Day, I ask you to hold all our fallen heroes in your hearts, and if you can, to lay a flower where they have come to rest.”
Lesser known is the account of Augusta Sykes Cox whose husband and brother-in-law both died during the war. She has traditionally been credited with suggesting Union graves should also be decorated and 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 Columbus Dispatch, which published it in its April 24, 1921, edition:
“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.’”
The reconciliation of North and South began with the simple act of ladies in Columbus, placing flowers on the graves of all soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery, Union and Confederate. In the midst of holiday barbecues and events, we must not forget the real meaning of Memorial Day. It began as a day to honor those who sacrificed their lives ensuring that we remain a free people. We should never forget their sacrifice and as President Obama said, “hold all our fallen heroes in your hearts, and if you can, to lay a flower where they have come to rest.”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]