The rows of over 2,100 Confederate graves in Columbus' Friendship Cemetery did not wind up there by chance. Columbus was one of the largest hospital centers in the South during the Civil War. About 40 Union soldiers were also buried there alongside the Confederate graves. Photo by: Courtesy photo
April 21, 2018 9:59:31 PM
By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead
So begins New York Judge Frances Miles Finch's 1867 classic poem "The Blue and the Gray." It was a poem inspired by the "noble sentiments" of "the women of Columbus, Miss." who on April 25, 1866, placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus. It is a poem which was traditionally read across the country on Memorial Day. The story behind the poem rests not just in Columbus' Friendship Cemetery but in Callaway Hall at Mississippi University for Women, in Twelve Gables, Whitehall and numerous churches, homes and buildings around Columbus.
During the recent Columbus Pilgrimage, Carolyn Kaye, Gary Lancaster and I had several discussions about the military hospitals of Columbus and the soldiers buried in Friendship and Sandfield cemeteries. Both Carolyn and Gary have done extensive research into war time Columbus and have found a wealth of information.
The rows of Civil War graves in Friendship Cemetery did not wind up there by chance. Columbus was one of the largest hospital centers in the South during the war. Plans for a Columbus military hospital were first made early in 1862. The Battle of Shiloh, however, expanded Columbus' role from just a hospital to a major hospital center. Rev. James Lyon witnessed the flood of wounded soldiers brought by rail to Columbus after Shiloh. He described the horrific scene at the Columbus railroad depot where he saw more than 3,000 sick or wounded soldiers "stacked like cord wood" around the depot.
There were three large military hospitals in Columbus: The Gilmer Hotel, Callaway Hall at the Columbus Female Institute (now MUW) and a large hospital constructed in May 1862, at the fairgrounds on the north side of town. In addition there were five other buildings and several homes used as hospitals when Columbus was overwhelmed with thousands of sick and wounded soldiers after the Battle of Shiloh.
An inspection report dated May 2, 1862, described the hospitals. Yandell Hospital was the four-story Gilmer Hotel building downtown. It had eight surgeons and a 450-bed capacity but had 700 patients when inspected. Newsom Hospital was present day Callaway Hall at the W. It had three surgeons and three physicians with a 190-bed capacity but had 287 patients when inspected. The third hospital was reported to be under construction.
The women of Columbus organized to help, forming a "Soldier's Relief Society," of which Mrs. James W. Harris was president. She took in and cared for wounded soldiers, including at least one Union soldier, at her home, Whitehall. The Relief Society was dedicated to "ministering to the wants of Confederate soldiers as far as lay within their power and of nursing the sick and wounded." Though their goal was to help sick or wounded Confederate soldiers, they also cared for captured sick or wounded Union soldiers.
The Confederate soldiers who died in the hospitals were buried in Friendship Cemetery, as were most Union soldiers who died in the hospitals. The exception were nine black Union soldiers and one white Union soldier, eight of whom were buried at "Potters Field" (Sandfield Cemetery) and two reportedly in a "corn field."
In Friendship Cemetery the military section on the south side of the cemetery was opened first and 914 Confederate soldiers were reported to have been buried there, two to a headstone. As that plot filled, another military section opened on what was then the northwest corner of the cemetery. About 1,200 Confederate soldiers were buried there, also two to a headstone. The names of around 1,000 of the Confederate soldiers are known through cemetery and hospital records, though most of their exact grave locations are uncertain.
The exact number of Union soldiers buried at Friendship is not known. The Columbus Index on April 26, 1866, stated that there were about 40 Federal graves in the cemetery that were decorated with flowers on that first Decoration Day. In October 1867, 18 unknown and 14 known U.S. soldiers were moved to the National Cemetery at Corinth. Also, Carolyn Kaye found records of 12 members of an Indiana cavalry regiment who died of disease in Columbus during its occupation in 1865. It is not clear if these soldiers were included in the total number.
It is clear, though, that not all Union graves were moved in 1867. An 1877 newspaper clipping describing that year's Decoration Day ceremonies says: "We saw a beautiful young lady, of one of the first families of the town, with a basket on her arm pass to the far corner of the Cemetery to the Federal graves, we watched to see her object, and discovered that her eye had caught the sight of two or three graves, which had been neglected, and she decked them with beautiful flowers. They were Federal graves without any headstones. Thus the blue and the gray were alike honored by our noble ladies."
There is still a lot of history surrounding Columbus and the origins of Memorial Day which needs to be explored. Carolyn and Gary are doing a good job of it. If those long lost unmarked Union graves can be located, an appropriate memorial marker should then be placed there. It is where flowers helped heal a nation.
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]
1. Ask Rufus: The Passing of the Tombigbee Steamboats LOCAL COLUMNS
2. Our View: Roses and thorns ROSES & THORNS
4. Possumhaw: Murmurs of murmurations LOCAL COLUMNS
5. Cartoonist View: 2/17/19 NATIONAL COLUMNS