Memorial Day is typically associated with recent wars, World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War. But the first observation of Decoration Day, as it was originally known, honored those who fell in the Civil War. Union Major-General, John A. Logan is officially credited for the first observance in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. However, some 150 years later, no one seems to agree on who is really responsible for the first ceremony or where it occurred.
One intriguing story predates the observance to 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi when four confederate women decorated (hence the name) graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. What makes this story truly amazing is that while the women decorated the graves of their own fallen soldiers, they also put wreaths on the graves of Union soldiers that died in the Battle of Shiloh and sent notes of condolence to their families. This remarkable story is said to have been picked up in newspapers around the country and to have been the inspiration for General Logan to proclaim May 30 as Decoration Day as well as for Francis Miles Finch’s poem “The Blue and the Gray.” The poem, published in The Atlantic in 1867 captures beautifully the poignancy of that gesture by these women who acknowledged the loss of their northern sisters as they mourned their own dead in the aftermath of defeat and destruction. The first stanza of the poem is below.
The Blue And The Gray
Francis Miles Finch (1827-1907)
By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray.
For more about the four confederate women and the complete poem, see the Atlantic archives, https://theatln.tc/2kx8MpK