THE ORIGINS OF MEMORIAL DAY
Background and History of Columbus' Friendship Cemetery
FIRST DECORATION DAY
On the day, April 25, 1866, only one year removed from the end of the bloodiest war ever seen in our country's history, 4 women of Columbus, MS decorated Confederate and Union soldiers’ graves at Friendship Cemetery.
This gesture is said to have evolved into Memorial Day, the annual day of recognition of fallen solders.
Image at right: Jane Fontaine, Martha Elizabeth Morton (seated left to right), Kate McCarthy Hill Cooper, and Augusta Murdock Sykes Cox (standing, left to right)
Friendship Cemetery is one of the oldest perpetually maintained cemeteries in Mississippi and is an historic site of national importance. Established May 30, 1849, on a five acre parcel of land owned and operated by Union Lodge No. 35 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the cemetery had its first recorded burial in July, 1849.
Typical monuments include obelisks, broken columns, urns, angels, cherubs, lambs, and crosses of various styles, as well as traditional upright slabs embellished by ornamental carvings. Rev. Thomas C. Teasdale's "Weeping Angel," the bronze bust of General S. D. Lee (early organizer and leader in the United Confederate Veterans), the obelisk-type Confederate monument erected in 1873 by the Ladies* Monumental Association, and the "Unknown Confederate Soldier" monument erected in 1894 are among the most notable. There is also a small Gothic Revival mausoleum located f within the graveyard. :
Probably the most solemnly impressive feature of the cemetery is.the Confederate burial ground containing the graves of over 2,000 Southern soldiers, mostly unknown.
During the War Between the States, Columbus became a hospital community tending both Confederate soldiers and Union prisoners-of-war wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and other fighting in north Mississippi. Of those mortally wounded, burial records indicate that 2,194 Confederate and 49 Union dead were interred at Friendship Cemetery. Throughout the war a small-group of Columbus ladies came on a regular basis to clean the graves of weeds and periodically decorate them with flowers. In the spring of 1866 Miss Matt Morton, Mrs. J. T. Fontaine, and Mrs. Green T. Hill met at the Morton home, "Twelve Gables," to plan what became the first observance of Memorial Day
Designed to be an annual event, "Decoration Day" (as it was called) was scheduled for April 25, 1866. On that day a large number of ladies assembled at Friendship Cemetery to officially decorate the Confederate graves and honor the Federal dead as well. The (Columbus) Mississippi Index of April 26, 1866, reported the proceedings as follows:
The procession of yesterday in honor of the Confederate dead was large and imposing... Arriving at the cemetery, the ladies assembled around the graves of the soliders in the form of a square; from the center of the ground, an elaborate and eloquent address was delivered by Rev. G. T. Stainback, and following it, a fervent prayer by Rev. A. S. Andrews. The ladies then performed the beautiful and touching duty of decorating the graves with flowers... We were glad to see that no distinction was made between our own dead and about forty Federal soldiers who slept their last sleep by them. It proved the exalted, unselfish tone of the female character. Confederate and Federal once enemies, now friends receiving this tribute of respect (Lispcomb, pp. 129-130).
It was from this observance, as reported in Northern newspapers, that New York jurist Francis Miles Finch drew the inspiration for his popular poem, "The Blue and the Gray." Prefacing the poem, published in The Atlantic Monthly, in September, 1867, was this note of praise for the deed performed at Friendship Cemetery:
The women of Columbus, Mississippi, animated by noble sentiments, have shown themselves impartial in their offerings to the memory of the dead. They strewed flowers on the graves of the Confederate and of the National soldiers (Kenton Kilmer, History and Government Division, Library of Congress, "The Origin and History of Memorial Day," research paper for Legislative Reference Service, Library of Congress, 1958).
In October, 1867, all the Union soldiers buried at Friendship Cemetery were reinterred at the Corinth National Cemetery, and in subsequent years, the Federal government placed the official observance of Memorial Day on May 30th (Friendship Cemetery papers). The people of Columbus, however, have continued to honor their dead every April 25 in a ceremony which has become known as "Confederate Decoration Day." Other communities which held similar ceremonies in April of 1866 have also laid claim to the origin of Memorial Day. Most conspicuous of these are Columbus, Georgia, which honored its Confederate dead on April 26th and Carbondale, Illinois, which honored its Union dead on April 29th. However, Columbus, Mississippi, can claim not only to have been ahead of the other observances of Memorial Day, but more national-minded in its distribution of the tributes of honor and mourning
FIRST DECORATION DAY
The Atlantic Article-
"A Real Story of Memorial Day: The origins of this weekend's holiday, linking Mississippi and The Atlantic"
"The Blue and the Gray"