In the country, we were more apt to call this day of remembrance “Decoration Day,” for we placed with deep love and remembrance those spring flowers—or if we didn’t have “live, blooming” flowers—we took bouquets of those made with crepe paper and fashioned to look like roses, tulips, or dainty daisies.
Here’s how Memorial Day, the last day of May, began back on April 26, 1865.
Our country had just gone through a dark, dark period called the War Between the States, the Civil War, or—as some in the South call it, even today--the War of Northern Aggression.
A group of women in Columbus, Mississippi announced their plans to march together in a group to Friendship Cemetery in that town and lay flowers on the graves of soldiers buried there—soldiers from both South and North who had fallen at the Battle of Shiloh. The town’s elders were not in favor of the women’s march and laying flowers, for they felt it would only be a reminder of the bitter conflict and again renew the animosities the elders hoped could be buried with the men who had fallen, as all were trying to recover and redirect energies in the aftermath of the struggle.
But the women were adamant. They marched, despite the town elders’ objections, taking with them arms full of beautiful spring blossoms to place lovingly and with gratitude at the graves of the fallen soldiers.
Word of what the women in Columbus, Mississippi did on April 26, 1865 spread rapidly. An article about their act in the New York “Tribune” inspired Francis Miles Finch, to write a poem which he entitled “The Blue and the Gray.” In the poem he lauded the laying of flowers, alike, “for friend and foe.” This notice and sentiment went far in helping the rift to be healed. Memorial Day as it is observed today on the last Monday in May grew from that original remembrance of the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi as they placed flowers in commemoration of those who had met their deaths in the Civil War.
Three years later, in 1868, an organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, Northern veterans, declared May 30 as the day for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died.” New York was the first state to recognize the day, state-wide, and observe it in 1873. More and more states joined in the celebration. Finally Memorial Day was made a national holiday, with patriotic programs a part of the observance and memorials lifted in praise of the war dead of every war that has touched America.
When we in the country observe “Decoration Day” in our churches, we are remembering not only our “war dead,” but also those ancestors who braved the unknown, whatever their goals, to take a stand for a better way of life for all.
When we take time to decorate the graves of our beloved dead near Memorial Day—or our “Decoration Day”—we are bestowing flowers—symbols of life renewed. We honor the lives of those who went before us to pave the way and make life better for us. At the same time, we are symbolizing that we take up the torch of those who have gone before us and bear it to the future, acknowledging our own responsibility to those who will follow us.
“Decoration Day”—Memorial Day—is a solemn time of reflection, remembrance and resolution. Aren’t we glad this special day is a part of our mountain country heritage?
c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published May 26, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.