Authors: Memorial Day was founded in Columbus, Ga., 150 years ago

Authors state case for Columbus, Ga., as birthplace of Memorial Day

150 years after the holiday began, Daniel Bellware of Aflac and Richard Gardiner of Columbus State University visit the Linwood Cemetery grave of Mary Ann Williams, whose letter published in newspapers throughout the U.S.
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150 years after the holiday began, Daniel Bellware of Aflac and Richard Gardiner of Columbus State University visit the Linwood Cemetery grave of Mary Ann Williams, whose letter published in newspapers throughout the U.S.

The coauthors of the book that promotes Columbus as the birthplace of Memorial Day 150 years ago gathered last week at the Linwood Cemetery graveside of the person who started this controversial story.

“I find it incredibly ironic that the woman most responsible for the decoration of graves across this whole country has her own grave fallen into disrepair,” said Richard Gardiner, associate professor of history education at Columbus State University.

The scene is a metaphor for the messy debate about Memorial Day’s origin. At least 25 U.S. cities claim the distinction. But the truth is clear to Gardiner and Daniel Bellware, senior manager of investor relations at Aflac, who began the 14 years of research that culminated in their 2014 book, “The Genesis of the Memorial Holiday in America”:

Mary Ann Williams, the secretary of the Ladies Memorial Association founded in Columbus during the winter of 1866, wrote a letter that was published in March and April of that year in more than two dozen newspapers across the country. The letter reported on the association’s resolution, one year after the end of the Civil War, to “beg the assistance of the Press and the Ladies throughout the South to aid us in our effort to set apart a certain day to be observed from the Potomac to the Rio Grande and be handed down through time a religious custom of the country to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers.”

Lizzie Rutherford, another member of the association, probably was the first to suggest April 26 as the date for Memorial Day, Bellware said, to coincide with the anniversary of Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s surrender to Union Maj. Gen William Sherman. Although it was 17 days after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, the later April date was when the war in Georgia ended and was more conducive to having fresh flowers available to decorate the graves, Bellware said.

But another city named Columbus, this one in Mississippi, conducted its ceremony a day earlier, April 25, 1866, because that was the date accidentally published in the area newspapers.

“It was a typo,” Bellware said. “The Memphis Appeal printed an apology, saying, ‘We’re sorry. We meant the 26th.’ But it was too late.”

So although the ceremony conducted in Linwood Cemetery on April 26, 1866, wasn’t the first Memorial Day observation in terms of chronology, the authors argue, it was the manifestation of where the holiday was conceptualized.

Unfortunately, this Columbus doesn’t have a presidential proclamation or a national museum backing up their claim. Waterloo, N.Y., has both.

Cities in the North delayed their 1866 ceremonies until the next month to allow more time for their local flowers to bloom. Waterloo claims its May 5 ceremony was the first community-wide observance, which included decorating graves, closing businesses and lowering flags to half staff. According to the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, druggist Henry Wells proposed the commemoration in the fall of 1865 and enlisted the aid of retired Gen. John Murray, then the Seneca County clerk, in the winter of 1866 to plan the event.

That tale was further entrenched 100 years later. Based on only secondary sources, Bellware and Gardiner assert, a Waterloo committee’s research convinced their congressman, Samuel Stratton, to sponsor a bill that became House Concurrent Resolution 587 and eventually the May 20, 1966, proclamation President Lyndon Johnson signed to recognize Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day in advance of the holiday’s centennial.

Bellware and Gardiner, however, wrote in their book, “The legend of the Waterloo birthplace of Memorial Day is much like the legend of Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball. It is a claim that cannot be documented with a single piece of contemporaneous material, while the oldest documents all point in another direction.”

Such as the April 12, 1866, edition of The New York Times, which reported, “Preparations are being made at various points throughout the South to observe the 26th of April as an anniversary in honor of the rebel dead.”

When he read that one sentence on microfilm in a Columbus library around 2003, with no mention of Waterloo by the newspaper in the same state, Bellware had his eureka moment and thought, “Holy crap! That’s it!”

In the official history of the holiday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, explains how May 30 became the Memorial Day date from 1868 to 1970, also known as Decoration Day during that time period:

“Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.”

Bellware and Gardiner wrote in their book that, on June 5, 1868, The New York Times reported Logan had adopted the plan that “the ladies of the South instituted.” The authors found several other Northern newspapers gave similar credit.

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and placed it on the calendar as the last Monday in May to give workers a three-day weekend.

Some states in the South, however, continued a separate observance for Confederate Memorial Day on various dates. For example, it is the fourth Monday of April in Alabama. Gov. Nathan Deal moved Georgia’s observance to that date, starting last year, and scrubbed the name in favor of a generic “state holiday.”

Which brings this controversial story back to Columbus and Linwood Cemetery, where the woman who inspired Memorial Day is buried in a grave that needs some of the honor the holiday invokes as Americans observe its sesquicentennial.

“The evidence is beyond abundant that this letter is what started it,” Gardiner said.

Bellware added, “Historians keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s a mystery. It’s lost to the ages. We don’t know how it started.’ Well, they just didn’t bother to look.”