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Ask Rufus: Memorial Day

 

Friendship Cemetery in Columbus is the resting place of almost 1,500 Confederate soldiers. Union soldiers once buried there were moved to the National Cemetery at Corinth when it was established.

Friendship Cemetery in Columbus is the resting place of almost 1,500 Confederate soldiers. Union soldiers once buried there were moved to the National Cemetery at Corinth when it was established. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Placing America flags on veterans graves at Friendship Cemetery on Saturday were members of the American Legion and their families. Standing, from left, Joe Vadalabene (USAF 61st Sqd), Halie and Joyce Vadalabene, Dave Guild (USAF 5th Mobile Communications), and Dona and Jordyn Vadalabene.

 

Rufus Ward

 

Much has been written about, and many towns have claimed to be, the birthplace pf Memorial Day. The U.S. Veteran's Administration reports that more than 24 towns claim to be the birthplace of this weekend's celebration. In an address in 2010, President Obama specifically mentioned Waterloo, New York, and Columbus, Mississippi. A lengthy article in the New York Times in 2012 focused on the claims of Columbus, Waterloo and Columbus, Georgia. The claims of those three seem to have the most factual basis. 

 

In an interview for the Times article, I suggested that the national publicity received by Columbus, Mississippi, as a result of decorating all soldiers graves, be they Union or Confederate, was the catalyst for a national day of recognition of all Americans who had given their lives for their country. That act here predated by years any other such act of reconciliation. 

 

While we are familiar with New York Judge F. W. Finch's famous poem "The Blue and The Gray," which was published in the Sept. 1867 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, we are not so aware of the national press coverage the local event received. Judge Finch in 1867 cited the following account from the New York Tribune as being his inspiration, "the women of Columbus, Mississippi, animated by nobler sentiments than many of their sisters, 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 National soldiers." 

 

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. However, its beginings went back to April 1863, when the same ladies began decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers in Friendship Cemetery. Having been a major hospital center during the Civil War, the cemetery contains the graves of almost 1,500 soldiers who died here.  

 

The act of the ladies in Columbus was quickly picked up by national press. 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 whereever 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, Va., 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 act of kindness and reconciliation by the ladies of Columbus were recognized across the still-torn country as a sorely needed step toward reuniting the people north and south. In Waterloo, New York, only the graves of Union soldiers were to be decorated on a proposed May 30th national Memorial Day, according to the 1868 "general order" of General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic. On May 29, 1869, the Ottawa, Ill., Free Trader commented on General Logan's order, "Memorial Day as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen brave with flowers, had its origin, we believe in the South. But it was there as we hope it will hereafter be at the North, the spontaneous act of a grateful peoples without being moved thereto by a pompous 'general order'..." 

 

Here at Friendship Cemetery the commemoration was organized yearly by the Ladies Monumental Association until 1894, when it was assumed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The almost 1,500 graves of soldiers who had died in Columbus during the war were located on the then northwest and southwest corners of the cemetery. The road connecting the two plots was planted with magnolia trees and named Magnolia Avenue in 1869. In 1873 a monument made of stone quarried near Iuka, Mississippi, was placed on the west side of Magnolia Avenue mid way between the two military plots. 

 

Today the traditions of Decoration Day and Memorial Day continue at Friendship Cemetery. On April 25 the United Daughters of the Confederacy places Confederate flags on the graves of the Confederate soldiers and on Memorial Day weekend members and their families of the American Legion and the VFW place American flags on the graves of veterans. It was several years ago that I first noticed at some Confederate monuments were placed both Confederate and American flags symbolizing that we are all once again Americans. It is a continuation of that unifying act in 1866 by the women of Columbus that helped heal the wounds of a nation.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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