Columbus Mississippi was a small town of about 6,000 people during the Civil War. Being near a rail line, Columbus received many mainly Confederate casualties of war, including those from the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862, in nearby southwestern Tennessee.
During the two days of that battle, a total of almost 3,500 soldiers were killed on both sides, and over 16,000 wounded. Columbus’s share of the casualties led to its becoming famous as a hospital town.
By the war’s end some 2,500 Confederate soldiers are thought to have been buried in the Friendship Cemetery in Columbus—along with, according to the National Archives, 32 Union soldiers.
A year after the war’s end, in April, 1866, four women of Columbus gathered together to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers. They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there, and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. This is how the original Decoration Day began.
A poet and academic from the north, Francis Miles Finch—a Yale graduate and Skull and Bones member, who later became a judge—heard about and was moved by the magnanimous gesture by the women of Columbus. In the same spirit he wrote a tribute to soldiers from both sides, a poem called The Blue and the Gray.
The Atlantic Monthly, as the magazine was called then, published Finch’s poem in its September, 1867 issue. It remains Finch’s best-known work. Here is a photo of the opening page of the two-page poem, taken yesterday at the magazine’s headquarters, now in DC, from the bound volume of The Atlantic Monthly from 1867.
By 1882 Decoration Day was officially renamed Memorial Day and Waterloo, NY was considered the home of the holiday — NY State was the first to honour it. The holiday was eventually moved to the last Monday in May in 1968 and in 1971 it was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress.
However, many traditionalists feel that the shift of Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday of the month has diminished its solemn nature by making it a movable holiday and to answer that, in 1999, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, a decorated WWII veteran, introduced a bill restoring the traditional May 30th date.Alas, the bill never left committee, so it ended up being totally ceremonial, and it remains a moveable holiday, where Americans now go to cemeteries throughout the nation and “decorate” their honored dead graves as well as have bbq’s and parades.
Read the poem in full over here at Bartelby.
Enjoy yours, safely.