Ask Rufus: Memorial Day and the legacy of Dr. William Sykes

May 28, 2011 7:20:00 PM

Rufus Ward - rufushistory@aol.com

 

The death of Dr. William E. Sykes and the love of his family played a major role in the origins of Memorial Day. Many articles have been written about Memorial Day and the ladies of Columbus who were the first in the nation to honor the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers with flowers. However, in those accounts you do not find the name of William E. Sykes. 

 

William E. Sykes was born in Decatur, Ala., in 1835. He was the son of George and Mary Sykes who had moved to Decatur from Virginia. The family moved to Aberdeen in 1849. Education was important to the family and after extensive primary education William attended the University of Virginia. 

 

He then entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, from where he graduated in 1855. He returned to Aberdeen and opened his medical practice. Then in 1858, after being given a plantation in Tallahatchie County by his father he left the medical field. In 1860 he married Augusta Murdock of Columbus. 

 

When the Civil war broke out in 1861 he joined the Confederate Army as a surgeon. Being behind the lines was not Sykes'' nature. After about six weeks he resigned his commission and enlisted as a private in Capt. Abert''s Company of Cavalry. His brother, Columbus Sykes, wrote that William told him; "he would never shield himself behind a sick man''s couch." In May of 1862, he transferred to the 43rd Mississippi Infantry Regiment as a 1st lieutenant and adjutant. 

 

In October 1864, the 43rd Mississippi was facing Union troops advancing on Decatur, Ala. As a battle erupted on Oct. 26, Lt. Sykes was in the forefront of the action. Early in the fighting Sykes was struck in the abdomen by the shell from a 10-pound Parrott gun (cannon). His brother Col. Columbus Sykes rushed to his side and William was carried into Decatur where he was laid on a couch in the house in which he had been born. William''s brother later wrote; "Though suffering excruciating agony, he calmly surveyed his wound and pronounced it inevitably mortal." 

 

As he lay dying he asked that an ambrotype (photograph) he had of his wife, Augusta, be buried with him. His last words were directed to be told to his son, James Murdock Sykes. William whispered with his last breath; "Tell Murdock never to use profane language, drink, chew or smoke tobacco, or visit improper places." Dr. William E. Sykes died at 10 on the morning of Oct. 27, 1864. His body was carried back to Columbus where he was buried in Friendship Cemetery. 

 

William''s brother, Columbus Sykes, had accompanied William''s remains to Columbus and attended the funeral. After William''s funeral Columbus Sykes took a furlough so that he could visit his family in Aberdeen. He left Aberdeen about Dec. 19, 1865, to rejoin his company. He caught up with them on Dec. 31. On the afternoon of Jan. 5, 1865, they made camp and Col. Sykes picked a spot under a tall dead tree. During the night the tree fell on Sykes and two other soldiers killing them. His dying words were "Tell my dear wife and children I loved them to the end." He died on Jan. 6 and was buried in Aberdeen.  

 

During the spring of 1866 Columbus ladies, Miss Matt Morton, Mrs. J.T. Fontaine and Mrs. Green T. Hill had been caring for the graves of over 1,260 Confederate soldiers buried in Columbus'' Friendship Cemetery. Their action resulted in a desire for a formal ceremony to lay flowers on the graves of the Confederate soldiers. One of the ladies helping organize the event was Augusta Sykes, the widow of Dr. William Sykes. As the widow of a Confederate soldier, Augusta was able to do something, at a time when hard feelings still remained, that no one else could have done. 

 

Augusta Sykes felt that the graves of 40 Union soldiers who were buried in the cemetery should also be decorated with flowers. She thought of the Union soldiers as husbands, fathers and brothers just like the Confederate soldiers. As a widow she knew the pain of the nation and took a huge step towards healing its deep wounds. Her suggestion was taken to heart and the ladies of Columbus were the first in the nation to lay flowers on and honor the dead of friends and former foes alike.  

 

Their action attracted national attention and articles reporting the healing act appeared in several Northern papers including the New York Tribune. That article inspired New York judge Francis Miles Finch to write the celebrated poem "The Blue and the Gray" that inspired the whole country and for many years was closely associated with Memorial Day.  

 

The sad death of a doctor turned soldier in 1864 and his brother in 1865 led to a brave widow taking a major step in healing a nation''s deep wounds.

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