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Ask Rufus: The Lost Heroes of Memorial Day

 

Near these Confederate graves in Columbus' Friendship Cemetery are unmarked lost Civil War graves of Union soldiers. The decoration of their graves with flowers in 1866 inspired the creation of Memorial Day. This week the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi will use remote sensing technologies to attempt to locate those graves.

Near these Confederate graves in Columbus' Friendship Cemetery are unmarked lost Civil War graves of Union soldiers. The decoration of their graves with flowers in 1866 inspired the creation of Memorial Day. This week the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi will use remote sensing technologies to attempt to locate those graves. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

This week a project will commence to try and locate lost graves of Union soldiers who were buried in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus during the Civil War.  

 

These graves are significant, not just as graves of American heroes but for the role they played in inspiring the creation of Memorial Day. They are American heroes who gave their lives for this country and rest beside more than 900 Confederate soldiers in the cemetery's south side military section.  

 

Though once these soldiers fought on opposite sides, they are all Americans. The reconciliation of North and South took a huge step forward with the simple act in 1866 of ladies in Columbus, Mississippi, placing flowers on the graves of all soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery, Union and Confederate, and recognizing all those soldiers as heroes.  

 

That ceremony of decorating both Union and Confederate graves with flowers continued in Friendship Cemetery at least until 1919 when the Columbus Dispatch headlined a May 27 front page article saying: 

 

 

 

"Pay Homage To Civil War Heroes 

 

Graves of Confederate And Federal Dead Were Decorated Yesterday 

 

Under Auspices of U. D. C. Chapter Tender Tribute is Paid 

 

Those Who Fell During the Civil War" 

 

(The U. D. C. is the United Daughters of the Confederacy.) 

 

 

 

Over the years, though, the exact location of the unmarked graves was forgotten as the older generation died and took with them the location of the graves. As the location of the Union graves faded, records were found that said the Union soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery had been moved to Corinth National Cemetery in 1867. It was assumed that all of the Union soldiers had been moved and in the 1920s the practice began of only decorating the Confederate graves.  

 

Research by Carolyn Kaye and Gary Lancaster has now discovered that as many as ten unmarked Union graves were overlooked in 1867 and remain in Friendship Cemetery. These were the "Federal Soldiers" whose graves continued to be decorated with Confederate graves through 1919. 

 

On Oct. 12 field work will commence on a project to attempt to locate the remaining unmarked graves of those Union soldiers buried in Columbus' Friendship Cemetery. The Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi will employ non-invasive remote sensing technologies, including ground penetrating radar, to search for the graves.  

 

The last reference to the location of those graves was in 1877 when they were described as being in the south west corner of the 1865 cemetery grounds. This location indicates they had probably served under General U. S. Grant and had died after the battle of Shiloh in 1862. 

 

These graves are especially significant for the role they played as an inspiration for the creation of Memorial Day, which itself evolved out of ideas and ceremonies in many towns across the United States between 1865 and 1868. The claims of Columbus, Georgia, and Waterloo, New York, both have some validity. The role of Friendship Cemetery appears not to be that of where the idea originated but to have been the national inspiration for a day of reconciliation and remembrance. 

 

When the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers buried in Columbus were first decorated with flowers on April 25, 1866, it touched heart strings across the country. The Lancaster (Ohio) Gazette on May 24, 1866, cited the Zanesville (Ohio) Courier in reporting on the "ceremony" in Friendship Cemetery: "If this be true and there seems to be little room to doubt it, the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, have set a noble example worthy of imitation by all. Let it be told wherever news is told, in commemoration of them, and that all may be incited to go and do likewise." A correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial called it a "simple incident of unselfishness and womanly delicacy."  

 

On May 26, 1866, a news item in the Raleigh, N.C., Weekly Standard described the ceremony at Friendship Cemetery and concluded by saying: "This act elicits the approval of the press of that city, which claims that the war being over, no distinction should be made between the departed heroes of opposing sides." The same article had appeared in the Petersburg, Virginia, Express. 

 

In Lexington County, Missouri, the weekly newspaper there on June 27, 1866, commented: "Like an oasis in the desert was that pleasing incident which is recorded in the Columbus Index. ...This tender Christian act ... kindles a spark of hope that we may, at some future time, become in heart one people. ... May God bless the kind hearted ladies of Columbus." 

 

The New York Tribune reported: "The women of Columbus, Mississippi, have shown themselves impartial in their offerings made to the memory of the dead. They strewed flowers alike on the graves of the Confederate and of the National soldiers." That account inspired Francis Miles Finch to write a poem, The Blue and the Gray, which was published in the September, 1867, Atlantic Monthly and dedicated to the ladies of Columbus. 

 

Possibly the strongest statement about the national impact of the decorating of those Union graves in Columbus is found in the May 29, 1869, Maine Farmer of Augusta, Maine: "2 years ago it was stated that the women of Columbus, Mississippi, showed themselves impartial in the offerings which they made to the memory of the dead; for they strewed flowers alike on the graves of the confederate and national soldiers. All will remember the beautiful poem of 'The Blue and the Gray,' written in commemoration of this incident. Let others emulate this spirit. ... Thus may the ceremonial of 'Decoration Day' become a truly national one, and do much to remove any lingering vestiges of heart burning, and to bring all sections of 'our common country' into harmonious and fraternal relations with each other."  

 

More recently the Columbus ladies' act of compassion and role in Memorial Day was recognized by President Obama in his 2010 Memorial Day Address.  

 

On Friday, school classes are invited to come to Friendship Cemetery to view the archaeological work and learn about remote sensing technologies. Classes will be welcome to visit from 9 a.m.-noon and from 1:30-4 p.m. October is archaeology month and on Saturday, the public will be invited to come to the cemetery also from 9 a.m.-noon and from 1:30-4 p.m. and learn about the use of noninvasive archaeological technology in a day of public archaeology. 

 

This will be a joint project of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi, the U.S. Grant Association and U.S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University, and the Billups-Garth Foundation of Columbus, with assistance from the City of Columbus and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

 

To schedule a time for a class to visit the project and observe the remote sensing in progress, please contact Visit Columbus on Tuesday or Wednesday at 662-329-1191.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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