The First Memorial Day

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2018 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


John Logan

Near the end of May, we in the U.S. participate in an annual remembrance of those who gave, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the last full measure of devotion” in defense of our country. This is done on the day that has come to be known as Memorial Day. This commemoration was codified by John Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was an organization of Union veterans who had fought in the Civil War. On May 5, 1868 Logan issued his directive for this commemoration in his General Orders No. 11, in which he specified that the remembrance would take place on May 30, 1868. Logan’s directive stated that May 30, 1868 “is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” The wording that Logan used led to the day of commemoration being called Decoration Day, although the Grand Army of the Republic stipulated in a follow-up directive that “the proper designation of May 30th is Memorial Day” and further stipulated that it should be an annual event. After World War I, Memorial Day came to be a day to remember those who died not just in the Civil War, but in all of America’s wars. On Memorial Day, when we commemorate those who gave their lives for our country, we are following a long-standing tradition, a tradition that began in 1868. Or did it?

A sign in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, Mississippi denoting the
April 25, 1866 commemoration

Although John Logan’s General Orders No. 11 codified Memorial Day and the practice of spreading flowers on the graves of those who died in war, there is compelling evidence that there were Memorial Days in the U.S. prior to 1868. One such place where this happened is Columbus, Mississippi, which is in northeast Mississippi and is the birthplace of noted American playwright Tennessee Williams. In the spring of 1866, four women met and decided to honor the Civil War dead who were buried in the local cemetery. These four women are Jane Fontaine, Kate Hill, Martha Morton, and Augusta Cox. On April 25, 1866, a large group of women, who had been brought together by the four who met, went to the cemetery and spread flowers on the graves of the war dead. As it happened, there were not only Confederate dead in that cemetery, but Union dead as well. The women were perhaps moved by the thought that the Union dead, although the enemy, were also someone’s husband, son, father, or brother, and they spread flowers not just on the graves of the Confederate dead, but on the graves of the Union dead as well. In its report about the event, a local newspaper in Columbus, Mississippi wrote, “We were glad to see that no distinction was made between our own dead and about forty Federal soldiers, who slept their last sleep by them….Confederate and Federal — once enemies, now friends — receiving this tribute of respect.” Because of the observance that was organized by those four women, Columbus, Mississippi claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Other places in the U.S. also claim to be the location of the first Memorial Day, including Knoxville and Memphis in Tennessee, Jackson, Mississippi, Kingston, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Carbondale, Illinois, and Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia. There is even a Columbus, Georgia which disputes the claim of Columbus, Mississippi as the birthplace of Memorial Day and insists that the Columbus in Georgia rightly has this distinction. One feature that was common to all of these commemorations was the placing of flowers on the graves of the war dead. In 1966 a Congressional resolution that was affirmed by President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day, even though the first observance in that city happened later than the commemorations in other places. Those who support Waterloo’s claim assert that the observances in other locations did not involve the entire community. Whichever place can rightly claim the distinction as the first location of Memorial Day, it is almost certain that John Logan’s inspiration for a nationwide observance came from the commemorations that occurred in these various places. There are different explanations for how this inspiration came to Logan, including one that involves his wife, Mary, suggesting it to him after she observed the graves of Confederate dead strewn with flowers during a post-war trip to Petersburg, Virginia.

One aspect of the observance in Columbus, Mississippi, which distinguishes that commemoration, is the fact that it was, as far as is known, the first in which both Union and Confederate dead were honored. In this sense, the observance in Columbus, Mississippi had the kind of inclusiveness that such ceremonies should have. In contrast, John Logan’s General Orders No. 11 lacked this spirit of inclusiveness and reconciliation, in that Logan stipulated in his order that Memorial Day is intended for honoring those “who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” In addition, a later clarification in a resolution that was adopted by the Grand Army of the Republic indicated that the observance was meant “to preserve the memory of those only who fought in defense of the National Unity.” Perhaps John Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic, with the gruesome hostilities still fresh in their memories, can be excused for their lack of inclusiveness. However, when the Columbus, Mississippi newspaper reported how the local women honored the fallen of both sides, the newspaper noted that the magnanimous conduct of the women “proved the exalted, unselfish tone of the female character.”

Article about Jennie Vernon from the
Mobile Register of June 18, 1868

One of the most noble expressions of the same spirit of reconciliation that was displayed by the women of Columbus, Mississippi occurred in Lafayette, Indiana during the first national observance of Memorial Day in 1868. Lafayette, Indiana had been the site of a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, and Confederate prisoners who died there were buried in a local cemetery. In the spring of 1868, while a committee in Lafayette was making preparations for the national observance, a girl named Jennie Vernon, who resided in Lafayette, sent a wreath and a note to the committee. The note read, “Will you please put this wreath upon some rebel soldier’s grave? My dear papa is buried at Andersonville, and perhaps some little girl will be kind enough to put a few flowers upon his grave.” Jennie’s father was Samuel Vernon, a member of a cavalry company, who was captured on October 17, 1863 and sent to Andersonville. Samuel Vernon died on June 24, 1864 and is buried in Andersonville National Cemetery. In 1879 Jennie married a man named Charles Crain, and she lived in Lafayette, Indiana for the rest of her life.

Francis Miles Finch

The spirit of reconciliation that was displayed by the women of Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866 inspired a literary expression of that same spirit of reconciliation. This literary expression is a poem that was written by Francis Miles Finch, a lawyer and judge who lived in Ithaca, New York, and who composed poetry as a hobby. Finch reputedly saw a news report in the New York Tribune about the commemoration that was organized by the four women in Columbus, Mississippi, and he was so moved that the women honored the dead of both sides that he composed a poem titled “The Blue and the Gray.” The words of Finch’s poem address the grief felt by those, in both the North and the South, who lost loved ones in the Civil War. Moreover, the final verse seems to speak to the inclusive actions of the women who spread flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate dead and how that act of reconciliation helped to remove the feelings of animosity from former enemies. Finch’s poem reads in part, “By the flow of the inland river, / Whence the fleets of iron have fled, / Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver, / Asleep are ranks of the dead: / Under the sod and the dew, / Waiting the judgement-day; / Under the one, the Blue, / Under the other, the Gray. / These in the robings of glory, / Those in the gloom of defeat, / All with the battle-blood gory, / In the dusk of eternity meet: / Under the sod and the dew, / Waiting the judgement-day; / Under the laurel, the Blue, / Under the willow, the Gray…. / No more shall the war cry sever, / Or the winding rivers be red; / They banish our anger forever, / When they laurel the graves of our dead! / Under the sod and the dew, / Waiting the judgement-day; / Love and tears for the Blue, / Tears and love for the Gray.”

When we observe Memorial Day, we should keep in mind that this commemoration grew from a number of local remembrances into an annual nationwide observance. It does not matter which city can rightly claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, because, in reality, the many people who took it upon themselves to decorate the graves of the war dead are truly the ones who gave birth to Memorial Day. The most important aspect of this observance is not who did it first. The most important aspect of this observance is to remember and honor all those who gave their lives for our country. In this regard, John Logan, in his General Orders No. 11, expressed well the sentiment and respect that should permeate Memorial Day. Logan wrote, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.”