The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

May 23, 2014

When they called it Decoration Day

Pardon me for rehashing an old column, but its subject is one that may need reinforcing in our hearts and in our minds.

As we get older, Memorial Day increases our sense of what we have lost. When I’m out for a walk, I invariably find my way to our local cemetery, to view the stones of my dad and grandparents — for that nostalgia I now miss.

So, on this May 26, the last Monday in May, Americans will make their way to cemeteries the nation over, to pause a few minutes to remember those who have passed.

And while the official Memorial Day is upcoming, its roots come from the fire and hell of the American Civil War.

After many hours poring over books from my Civil War library, I think I’ve been able to find the true essence of the day each year we now call a holiday.

For the people it was intended, however, it was no holiday. Hundreds of thousands of men had fallen on fields of battle, from Shiloh to Gettysburg. The nation was torn apart, yet from it came remembrance of those who had died in battle.

History books tell us Gen. John Logan — commander of the Union veterans’ organization the Grand Army of the Republic — is given credit on May 5, 1868, for making the first Memorial Day a national day of observance, the day of remembrance hardly was his idea.

It runs much deeper than that.

From my research, the very first observances were in the South, and first proposed by Mrs. Mary A. Williams, the widow of Confederate Maj. Charles J. Williams.

Maj. Williams served as a colonel in the 1st Georgia Regulars of the Army of Northern Virginia. He contracted disease and died in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War, and was buried in Columbus, Ga.

Mrs. Williams and her little daughter visited his grave each day, and often wreathed it with cut flowers. While the mother sat thinking of her dead husband, the little girl would pluck weeds nearby from the unmarked graves of dead Confederates and cover them with flowers, calling them “her soldiers’ graves.”

After a short time, as was common during the day, the little girl also died from an illness. The bereaved mother, for her daughter’s sake, then took charge of the unknown buried. As she cared for the graves, she thought of other fallen soldiers throughout the South, many buried far from home and kin, and formulated a plan that would set apart one day each year where people might pay tribute to valor throughout the Southern states.

In March 1866, she addressed a communication to the Columbus Times, begging assistance from newspapers and ladies throughout the South to aid in the decoration effort, to wreath the graves of martyred dead with flowers on April 26 each year.

She wrote every soldiers’ aid society in every Southern state, and they readily re-organized under the name of memorial associations.

On May 1, 1865, a Charleston, S.C., newspaper is said to have reported a crowd of some 10,000 — mainly black residents — held a memorial observance at the site of a former Confederate prison where Union soldiers who died there had been buried in a mass grave, but who had been re-interred. However, I was never able to verify this story.

In the North, the first recorded memorial observance was May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, N.Y.

In addition, in 1866, the women of Columbus, Miss., placed flowers on the graves of some federal soldiers who had died there in a Union hospital. It was the first recorded postwar tribute to enemy dead.

In time, such reconciliations filled both the North and the South, and Gen. Logan chose May 30 as a national day of memorial for all fallen veterans of the war, choosing the date because so many flowers were then at their peak.

But, as they had during four years of bitter war, most states in the South went their own way and continued to call the day of remembrance Decoration Day, and to observe them on different dates than the national holiday.

After World War I, Memorial Day included the fallen from that war as well, as it did following World War II and succeeding conflicts.

In fact, Memorial Day did not become an official federal holiday until 1967, when it came to observe the passing of all in our nation’s cemeteries.

So, if you happen to visit a cemetery in the South Monday, and they still call it Decoration Day, take a moment of quiet pause and remember the simple, yet very powerful thoughtfulness from whence it came.

Christy is news editor at the News & Eagle and may be reached at davidc@enidnews.com.

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