Sunday, May 25, 2008

Decoration Day

The graves of Civil War soldiers at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi. One of nation's first Memorial Day observances took place at the cemetery in 1866.

On the morning on 6 April 1862, Union and Confederate armies collided in rural Hardin County, Tennessee, along the Mississippi State Line, near a church called Shiloh. The battle that followed would be the largest--and bloodiest--in U.S. history (to that point); more than 3,500 troops died, and another 16,000 were wounded in two days of desperate fighting.

Union forces secured a hard-won victory during the engagement, which took its name from the church that became part of the battlefield. The battle began with a surprise Confederate attack, aimed at pushing Union forces into a nearby swap. Awaiting reinforcements, Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant was devoting much of his time to the training of inexperienced troops, unaware that Rebel units were less than five miles away. Defensive positions among federal troops were virtually non-existent.

As a result, Union lines quickly crumbled when Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnson began his attack. But determined resistance along the Union left, in an area called the Hornet's Nest, bought precious time, allowing Grant to reestablish defensive lines at Pittsburg Landing, along the Tennessee River.

Meanwhile, the Confederate hopes received a fatal blow (literally and figuratively), when General Johnson received a leg wound around 2:30 p.m. Believing it to be minor, he sent his personal physician to tend to wounded Union soldiers. In reality, the round that struck Johnson's knee--almost certainly fired from a southern position--had severed an artery in the general's leg. His boot filled with blood and he died a short time later.

As daylight began to fade, Johnson's subordinate, General P.G.T. Beauregard, decided not to press the attack, giving Grant more time to plan and reorganize. The next day he launched a massive counterattack at dawn, forcing Beauregard to retreat. The invasion route into northern Mississippi and Alabama was reopened, while the Confederates contemplated not only the loss of a key battle, but (arguably) their best commander--before the emergence of Robert E. Lee.

More than a thousand men died on each side at Shiloh, and many more were wounded. With few hospitals in the area surrounding the battlefield, scores of wounded men were evacuated to the city of Columbus, 80 miles south of Pittsburg Landing. The lucky ones made the trip by train; the rest made the excruciating journey by wagon, across bumpy roads.

Given the limits of military medicine during that era, hundreds of wounded soldiers who survived the battle died days or weeks later in Columbus. Many of them were buried in Friendship Cemetery, which remains a local landmark.

By some accounts, the ladies of Columbus visited the cemetery in late April of 1862, decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers who were killed at Shiloh, or succumbed from their wounds after the battle. They resumed the practice on April 25, 1866. Noticing that the graves of Union soldiers went undecorated, the women of Columbus placed flowers on the burial plots of their former enemies.

Columbus wasn't the only American town to remember the war dead in that spring of 1866. But it could be argued that the Mississippi commemoration had the most impact. The simple act of generosity and reconciliation was noted in Horace Greely's New York Tribune and it inspired Frances Miles Finch's poem, "The Blue and the Gray," which became required memorization for generations of school children.

The Columbus event also influenced the establishment of a formal Memorial Day. In 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of a veterans group called the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order Number 11 designating May 30 as a memorial day "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." The first national celebration of the event took place on May 30th of that same year, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Originally known as Decoration Day, the commemoration officially became Memorial Day at the turn of the century. By that time, the practice of decorating the graves of dead soldiers had become customary throughout the nation. But the annual act of remembrance might have never occurred, except for a bloody Civil War battle, and an act of kindness by a group of southern women.

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