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.