Here’s a trivia question for armchair historians: Was the first Memorial Day celebrated in Columbus, Georgia, or Columbus, Mississippi?
According to livescience.com the true story behind the first Memorial Day strict calendric interpretation, Columbus, Mississippi, celebrated the holiday first, on April 25, 1866, but only because newspaper editors fudged the date, said Richard Gardiner, an associate professor of history education at Columbus State University in Georgia, and co-author of “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday” (Columbus State University, 2014).
Columbus, Georgia, where the concept of honoring the soldiers who died in the American Civil War originated, celebrated it a day later, on April 26, 1866, along with dozens of other cities, Gardiner said.
Memorial Day’s date has changed over the years, but the very first holiday was planned for April 26, 1866, in the wake of the American Civil War.
In January 1866, the Ladies’ Memorial Association in Columbus, Georgia, passed a motion agreeing that they would designate a day to throw flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers buried at the cemetery, Gardiner said.
However, the ladies didn’t want this to be an isolated event, so Mary Ann Williams, the group’s secretary, wrote a letter and sent it to newspapers all over the United States.
“You’ll find that letter in dozens of newspapers,” Gardiner said. “It got out, and it was republished everywhere in the country.”
In the letter, the ladies asked people to celebrate the war’s fallen soldiers on April 26 — the day the bulk of Confederate soldiers surrendered in North Carolina in 1865.
“That’s what many people in the South considered to be the end of the war,” Gardiner said. Even though Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, “there were still 90,000 people ready to fight. And until those 90,000 surrendered on April 26, the war was effectively still going on,” Gardiner said.
But the date wasn’t printed correctly in every newspaper, which led Columbus, Mississippi, to celebrate the holiday a day earlier, on April 25. Despite the mix-up, Columbus, Mississippi, is often credited as the birthplace of Memorial Day, Gardiner said.
In one of his 2010 weekly addresses, President Barack Obama said just that: “On April 25, 1866, about a year after the Civil War ended, a group of women visited a cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi, to place flowers by the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at Shiloh,” he said.
Gardiner said, “I don’t contest that. But the evidence is abundantly clear that they were simply following what the newspaper had suggested that they do.” Rather, it was the women of Columbus, Georgia, who thought of the idea, he said.
Flowers for all
On April 26, 1866, people across the South heeded Williams’ letter and threw flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers. Some Southern women noticed that Yankee graves, interspersed with the graves of their loved ones, sat untended, Gardiner said.
“They start to see these Union graves that are just laying there, kind of barren,” he said. “Their hearts are warmed. Their hearts start to feel bad for the mothers who have lost these children. So, they start to throw flowers on the Yankee graves. And then that story gets published everywhere.”
Memorial Day, an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, at least, it marks the beginning of summer.