The Origins of Confederate Decoration Day

There are many tales of formally memorializing both the Confederate and Union dead in ceremonies across the country after the Civil War.  Origination stories vary, but both sides of the divided country sought a way to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice that the brothers in arms laid down for their country, and to never forget the mortal pain of a country shattered by disagreement.

One of the first mentions of a Confederate Decoration Day (or “Memorial Day”) is found in a book by Lucian Lamar Knight (“Compiler of the State Records of Georgia”): Georgia’s Landmarks, Memorials, and Legends. Published in two volumes in 1914, the book contains a miscellany of stories about Georgia.  Knight gives Georgia credit for the “universal custom of decorating annually the graves of the heroic dead.” The first such ceremony was held on April 26, 1866 in Linnwood Cemetery at Columbus, Georgia, according to Knight. Colonel James N. Ramsey, a soldier and a member of the local bar association, was the first Decoration Day orator, and the graves of the Confederate dead were cleared of weeds and debris, and decorated with flowers. Graves of Union soldiers who had also fallen in battle at Shiloh were not neglected, as the women placed flowers on their graves so that no soldier’s sacrifice would be forgotten.

The date of April 26 was selected for two reasons – it marked the anniversary of General Johnston’s surrender (the event which terminated the Civil War for the South); and it “registered the maturity of the vernal season, when flowers in this latitude are most abundant.” 

It was patriotic Southern women who organized the event, according to Knight. The first formal organization to adopt and conduct the ceremony was The Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus formed

Elizabeth Reed Rutherford

Elizabeth Rutherford, wife of Captain William “Bill” Rutherford.

in 1866 from a group of ladies, under the leadership of Lizzie Rutherford, who worked with the Soldiers’ Aid Society (an organization of women who served the Confederacy by sewing garments to be sent to the front, caring for the wounded, and ensuring that the dead were given the rites of a Christian burial).

 The original “press release” drafted by Mrs. Charles J. Williams that was sent to newspapers throughout the former Confederate States and first appeared in the Columbus Times:

 

 

Columbus, Ga.
March 12th 1866

Messrs. Editors:

The ladies are now and have been for several days engaged in the sad but pleasant duty of ornamenting and improving that portion of the city cemetery sacred to the memory of our gallant Confederate dead but we feel it is an unfinished work unless a day be set apart annually for its especial attention We cannot raise monumental shafts and inscribe thereon their many deeds of heroism but we can keep alive the memory of the debt we owe them by dedicating at least one day in each year to embellishing their humble graves with flowers .

Therefore we beg the assistance of the press and the ladies throughout the South to aid us in the effort to set apart a certain day to be observed from the Potomac to the Rio Grande and be handed down through time as a religions custom of the South to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers and we propose the 26th day of April as the day.

Let every city town and village join in the pleasant duty. Let all alike be remembered from the heroes of Manassas to those who expired amid the death throes of our hallowed cause. We’ll crown alike the honored resting places of the immortal Jackson in Virginia, Johnson at Shiloh, Cleburne in Tennessee, and the host of gallant privates who adorned our ranks. All did their duty and to all we owe our gratitude. 

Let the soldiers graves for that day at least be the Southern Mecca to whose shrine her sorrowing women like pilgrims may annually bring their grateful hearts and floral offerings. And when we remember the thousands who were buried “with their martial cloaks around them,” without Christian ceremony of interment, we would invoke the aid of the most thrilling eloquence throughout the land to inaugurate this custom by delivering, on the appointed day this year, a eulogy on the unburied dead of our glorious Southern army. 

They died for their country. Whether their country had or had not the right to demand the sacrifice is no longer a question of discussion. We leave that for nations to decide in future. That it was demanded, that they fought nobly and fell holy sacrifices upon their country’s altar and are entitled to their country’s gratitude none will deny. The proud banner under which they rallied in defense of the holiest and noblest cause for which heroes fought, or trusting women prayed, has been furled forever. 

The country for which they suffered and died has now no name or place among the nations of the earth. Legislative enactment may not be made to do honor to their memories but the veriest radical that ever traced his genealogy back to the deck of the Mayflower, could not refuse us the simple privilege of paying honor to those who died defending the life, honor, and happiness of the Southern women.

Literature and history are typically partial to a Lost Cause, and the origins of a national Memorial Day sprung from the efforts of the vanquished South. The Southern soldier was instinctively Cavalier and traditionally Romantic.

Two years later, a national observance of Memorial Day was declared by the Federal Government to be held on May 30. A hundred years later, in 1966, the US Congress attempted to legislate Confederate Decoration Day out of existence by formally declaring Waterloo, New York the “birthplace” of Memorial Day, and in 1971 Congress declared May 30 a national holiday and expanded the observance to honor those who fell in all American Wars.

Although Texas officially celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on January 19, the Confederate Cemetery Association chooses to memorialize the Southern soldier on the traditional date of April 26.

Col. George Wythe Baylor (1832-1916)

George Wyeth Baylor

George Wythe Baylor, Confederate military officer and Texas Ranger, the son of John Walker Baylor, was born in Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation, on August 2, 1832. His father died before George was 10 years old.  The family moved often during his early years. In 1836 they relocated to Natchez, Mississippi. Over the next several years the family moved to Fort Gibson to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Little Rock, Arkansas, and finally back to Fort Gibson.

In 1845, Baylor moved to Texas to live with his brother John in Ross Prairie near La Grange. He went to Rutersville College and later, through the influence of his uncle R.E.B. Baylor, he attended Baylor University at Independence, Texas. He worked for a short time as a clerk with the Commissary Department of the U. S. Army at the Alamo in San Antonio.

Gold fever took him to California in 1854. 1856 finds Baylor in San Francisco and a member of the “Vigilance Committee.” According to family letters, George could not find steady employment or strike it rich in the gold fields. By late 1859 he was back in Texas and living with his brother in Weatherford.

Baylor is reputed to have raised the first Confederate flag in Austin. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in Company H of the Second Cavalry, John Robert Baylor’s Arizona Brigade, and served as regimental adjutant before resigning to become senior aide-de-camp to Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston in August or September 1861. After Johnston’s death at the battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, on April 6, 1862, Baylor returned to Texas and was elected lieutenant colonel and commander of the Second Battalion of Henry H. Sibley’s army. When the battalion merged with the Second Cavalry regiment of the Arizona Brigade, Baylor was elected its colonel. He also commanded a regiment of cavalry during the Red River campaign of 1864 and was commended for gallantry at the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.

On April 6, 1865, at the headquarters of Gen. John B. Magruder in the Fannin Hotel in Galveston, Baylor quarreled with and killed fellow staff officerJohn Austin Wharton. Their fight was said to have been about “military matters,” specifically the reorganization of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederate States. Wharton reportedly slapped Baylor’s face and called him a liar, whereupon Baylor drew his revolver and shot the unarmed Wharton. Baylor later said that the incident had a been a “lifelong sorrow” to him.

After the Civil War, when Lt. John B. Tays, commander of Company C, Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers in El Paso, resigned to enter the customs service, Baylor was commissioned a first lieutenant and appointed to take his place. At this time, according to Walter Prescott Webb, Baylor “was in his prime, forty-seven years of age, six feet two inches, a fine type of the frontier gentleman. He had a fair education, a flair for writing for newspapers and an inclination to fill his reports with historical allusions.” Baylor left San Antonio on August 2, 1879, with his wife, two young daughters, and a sister-in-law, riding in an ambulance and with two wagons full of provisions and household goods, the latter including a piano and a game cock and four hens.

The caravan, guarded by Sgt. James B. Gillett and five other rangers, was forty-two days on the road to Ysleta, where Baylor established his headquarters. From there he opened his campaign against raiding Apaches, whom he often pursued beyond the Rio Grande, in cooperation with Mexican officials.

Baylor was able, through his knowledge of Spanish and his friendships with many of the leading citizens of El Paso, to put to rest the lingering hatreds caused by the Salt Wars. He was soon involved in protecting the region from attacks from the Apaches. Baylor used local guides and worked closely with Mexican authorities on the south side of the Rio Grande. One of Baylor’s greatest successes as a Ranger came in January 1881 when  a small band of Mescalero Apaches, led by Chief Victorio, attacked a stagecoach in Quitman Canyon. Following the cold trail, Baylor and the Texas Rangers tracked the Apaches down the bank of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. Along the way they found items taken from the stage.

The trail turned back into Texas, where they found a fresh camp site. Following the trail into the Eagle Mountains, the Rangers came across a camp that was only hours old. Baylor’s men met up with a detachment of Rangers from Lt. Nevill’s company at Eagle Springs. After more tracking, the Rangers finally came upon the Indian camp. A fight ensued on the morning of January 29, 1881. The fight, though small, has come down through history as the last Indian battle in Texas. In 1882 he was promoted to major and given command of several ranger companies.

George W. Baylor

George W. Baylor

In 1885 Baylor’s Company A was disbanded due to budget cuts. After his Ranger service, Baylor was elected from El Paso to serve in the Texas State House of Representatives. He also served as clerk of the district and circuit courts for a number of years. He lived in Mexico from 1898 and returned to San Antonio in 1913. He died on March 17, 1916 in San Antonio, and is buried in the Confederate Cemetery.

Baylor, according to Wilburn Hill King, the nineteenth-century historian of the rangers, was “noted for excellence of personal character and conduct, and soldierly courage and zeal,” but Webb, more reserved in his judgment, wrote that “though a courageous individual fighter,” Baylor “lacked reserve, was a poor disciplinarian, and an indifferent judge of men.”

Plot: Section 3 Lot 45
GPS (lat/lon): 29.42073, -98.46391

 

Sources:
Thomas W. Cutrer, “BAYLOR, GEORGE WYTHE,” Handbook of Texas Online(http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbaar), accessed April 11, 2015. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on March 1, 2011. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Texas Ranger Hall of Fame TxRangerLogo    (http://www.texasranger.org/halloffame/Baylor_George.htm) accessed April 11, 2015.

Confederate Decoration Day, 2015

 

Confederate Decoration Day will be held this year on April 26, 2015, beginning at 2PM, at the Confederate Cemetery in San Antonio, TX.

Printable PDF Map to the cemetery:
Directions to Confederate Cemetery Decoration Day 2015
(Thanks to Glen Toothman for map image.)

Don’t let the weather hold you back! There’s only a 30% chance of showers.
A reception featuring the traditional “Swampwater Tea” and home baked cookies will be provided by the Order of the Confederate Rose. Please bring lawn chairs, and (perhaps) an umbrella.