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Ernest Blevins: The inspiration for Memorial Day

On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was fired on by the South after Union soldiers refused to leave. On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, is seen as ending the war, although other Confederate armies did not surrender until May.

A week after Lee’s surrender, a home guard of militia units, county reserves and factory workers engaged Gen. James Wilson’s Union forces on the Alabama heights overlooking Columbus, Georgia.

The beginning and debated end of the War Between the States and most Confederate Memorial Days are observed in April. It is known widely as Confederate History Month.

The first Decoration Day was in Kingston, Georgia, in late April 1865 and has been continuously observed for 154 years. During the Federal occupation, the locals placed flowers on Confederate and Federal graves that day.

Spurring the effort for national Confederate memorial days, Lizzie Rutherford of Columbus, Georgia, influenced by Baroness von Tautphoeus’ “The Initials,” came up with the idea of tending the graves of heroes. Mrs. Charles J. Williams, also of Columbus, began tending the grave of her husband, Col. Charles J. Williams of the 1st Georgia, who died in 1862, bringing fresh flowers daily.

While she mourned, her daughter picked weeds off of “her soldiers’ graves.” Soon, the daughter died and left Mrs. Williams devastated, and to heal, she began to tend her late daughter’s soldiers’ graves.

Rutherford and Williams, with members of the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, led the efforts to take care of Southern soldiers’ graves and get Confederate Memorial Day recognized throughout the South. Starting in March 1868, Williams wrote newspapers and Soldiers’ Aid Societies across the South to mark the graves on April 26 — the day Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee.

When Williams died in April 1874, she was buried with military honors. Each year, the Columbus military march around her grave, and places floral offerings on Memorial Day.

Rutherford died in 1873. She was buried near the soldiers’ graves she cared for at Linwood Cemetery in Columbus. Her grave marker notes that she thought up Confederate Memorial Day. The Georgia Legislature, in 1874, created “The 26th day of April in each year — commonly known as Memorial Day” as a public holiday. In May 1900, the Confederated Southern Memorial Association was formed in Louisville, Kentucky, and led to the widespread adoption of Confederate Memorial Day, although states observe the day on different days.

The Ladies’ Memorial Association, United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans have continued the tradition of Confederate Memorial Day, usually in April. Other states recognize Confederate Memorial Day on May 10, associated with Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1863 death and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ 1865 capture. Some observe Davis’ birthday on June 3.

Virginia blended Confederate and Federal Memorial Days. In 1932, it was noted that West Virginia’s observance of “Confederate Memorial Day is always held the Sunday following the birthday anniversary of Jefferson Davis.”

Once upon a time, the South’s businesses and schools closed in reverent observance of Confederate Memorial Day. This was a time for parades and memorial speeches at the local soldiers’ cemetery. Tens of thousands of people made their way to the local Confederate cemetery, where children delighted in catching a glimpse of a Confederate veteran.

Although locally celebrated, the West Virginia government never recognized a Confederate Memorial Day. The earliest account located of Confederate Memorial Day in West Virginia is Charles Town, on June 6, 1874. Bluefield had services by June 1900.

Charleston’s first reported observation was on June 4, 1919. The Daughters of the Confederacy hosted a ceremony at First M.E. Church South — noting a recognition of the returning World War I veterans — and decorated the graves in Spring Hill Cemetery.

Former Gov. W.A. MacCorkle addressed the observance. Over the years, locations changed, and included the Stonewall Jackson Monument on the Capitol grounds. The last Charleston observance was reported as June 6, 1953, at the Jackson Monument.

Inspired by the South’s memorialization of their dead, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11, creating Decoration Day on May 5, 1868. He decided the Union dead needed a similar day.

He established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers and declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. The date is believed chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country and there was no significant battle fought on that day. Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day in 1954.

Ernest E. Blevins is a Daily Mail WV historical columnist. He can be reached at blevinsee@g.cofc.edu.