In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson ended a war that had been raging for years; the war over where Memorial Day actually began.
Placing flowers on soldiers’ graves began sporadically in different towns and communities after the Civil War; the result of a traumatized America coming to grips with the horrors of a war that left 625,000 men, women and children dead.
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was first officially observed at the Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868 where both Union and Confederate soldiers were remembered. Soon after, a battle raged between towns across the South and North vying to be called the originator of Memorial Day.
Towns and cities claiming to be the first to celebrate Memorial Day include Carbondale, Ill., Richmond, Va., Waterloo, N.Y., Boalsburg, Pa., and two towns in Georgia; Columbus and Macon.
But the day to remember all Civil War dead may have first began in a town 50 miles west of Tuscaloosa in Columbus, Miss.
In 1867 an editorial appeared in the New York Tribune that described four ladies in the Mississippi town placing flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.
This non-partisan act was an anomaly since most towns North or South placed flowers on their respective soldiers’ graves.
The ladies became known as the Decoration Day Ladies and inspired the poem written by Francis Miles Finch called “The Blue and the Gray.” The poem appeared in the September 1867 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
An early 20th Century newspaper article titled “A Peep Into The Past” offers an eyewitness account of that fateful day in April 1866. The article written by Captain Bob Banks is located in the Billups-Garth archives at the Columbus-Lowndes Library in Columbus. It reads: “Arriving at the cemetery, the ladies assembled around the graves of the soldiers in the form of a square. (...) The ladies then performed the beautiful and touching duty of decorating the graves with flowers.”
In the article Banks offers his beliefs about where Memorial Day began.
“It is a fact- an historic fact, absolutely authentic and incontrovertible- that the first Decoration Day of the graves of Confederate dead was April 25 1866, at Columbus, Miss. This beautiful custom of decorating soldier’s graves, which has now become national, had its birth in the sweet-hearted activities of three ladies of that town, Mrs. J.T. Fontaine, Mrs. Green T. Hill and Miss Matt Morton. On that occasion too, Mrs. Augusta Sykes led the way to the graves of Federal dead and tenderly placed garlands upon the sod that covered the Union soldiers.”
In May 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared that Waterloo was the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
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