A kind gesture in Columbus, Miss., inspired a war-torn nation to heal.
When the Mississippi sun streams through the windows of Twelve Gables, a Greek Revival cottage by the Tombigbee River, its owner Trudy Gildea thinks of Martha “Matt” Morton.
“She lived here all her life and saw that same glow. She never married, though I found a calling card from her boyfriend that read, ‘Mattie adieu. Above all, remember me,’” Gildea said.
More than 150 years have passed since Morton accepted gentleman callers at Twelve Gables. We can only wonder if she remembered her beau. We know for certain she did not forget the men wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. In April 1862, thousands of soldiers injured on that Tennessee battlefield were transported by train to Columbus, Miss. More than 2,000 died and were buried at Friendship Cemetery, less than a mile from Morton’s home. The 65-acre cemetery overlooks the Tombigbee River. Magnolias shelter rows of Civil War tombstones.
No Civil War battles were fought here, but as a hospital town, Columbus saw its share of suffering. Many residents lost family members. Nearly everyone, including Morton, opened his or her homes to the wounded. At Twelve Gables, soldiers lay on floor mats in the dining room.
The story most people choose to tell, however, is one of hope. They cherish the memory of an April day when Matt Morton and her friends used flowers to heal a nation.
Founded in 1817, Columbus has three historical districts and 676 historical properties. In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of that year’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations. Columbus has the ingredients of a classic Southern town: mansions, magnolias, mint juleps, and magnanimous people. Yet for all of its Southern sensibilities, Columbus defies oversimplification.
Rufus Ward, a native and local historian, lives in Morton’s old neighborhood. He can recite a long list of notable natives, from Pulitzer Prize-winning Tennessee Williams to athletes, poets, and scientists. It’s believed that Mississippi’s first school for freed slaves was in Columbus. America’s first public college for women, Mississippi Industrial Institute and College, was established here in 1884. In 1974, it became Mississippi University for Women, and has been coeducational since 1982.
As a writer, Williams understood the essence of places like Columbus: just beneath the surface lie stories as rich as Delta soil. Decades before Williams’ birth, Columbus would epitomize “the kindness of strangers” he would later write about.
FROM GRIEF TO GRACE
Morton and her friends–Jane Fontaine, Kate Hill, and Augusta Sykes–had all lost loved ones during the war. In an era when women were often bereft of everything but memories, they gathered at Twelve Gables to plan a remembrance day for the dead.
Ward is related to Sykes, whose husband was among the dead. After decorating the Confederate graves, she felt compelled to place flowers on the graves of 40 Union soldiers. She is recorded as saying that the Union men, like the Confederates, were husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.
“As a soldier’s widow, Augusta knew the pain of a nation and took a huge step toward healing its deep wounds,” Ward said.
On April 25, 1866, the women held a Decoration Day at Friendship Cemetery to place flowers on soldiers’ graves. Decoration Days were common throughout America during and after the war. United by compassion, Sykes’ friends joined her in decorating the graves of their former enemies. With that action, they inspired a war-torn country to begin healing. Although the 40 Union soldiers were later reinterred at the National Cemetery in Corinth, Miss., Columbus came to be known as the place where “flowers healed a nation.”
A NATION TAKES NOTICE
Newspapers in the North and South applauded the women. In Ohio, The Zanesville Courier wrote “…the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, have set a noble example worthy of imitation by all. Let it be told wherever news is told…that all may be incited to go and do likewise.”
Reading about the incident inspired New York Judge Francis M. Finch to pen “The Blue and the Gray” for the Atlantic Monthly. His poem gained widespread recognition and became associated with Memorial Day. This excerpt captures the mood of the time:
Lovingly laden with flowers,
A Holiday Evolves
Memorial Day, which commemorates those who died serving their country, has roots in Decoration Day. Many towns, including Columbus, Miss., and Columbus, Ga., claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1966, the federal government settled on Waterloo, New York. That city apparently held the first formal ceremony. On May 5, 1866, Waterloo launched an annual event when businesses closed and residents decorated soldiers’ graves.
Like his fellow townspeople, Ward feels the spirit of Memorial Day began in Columbus.
“The national publicity Columbus received by decorating all soldiers’ graves, be they Union or Confederate, predated any other such act of reconciliation. It was the catalyst for a national day of recognition for all Americans who gave their lives for their country,” he said.
In 1868, Maj. Gen. John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order designating May 30 as a day to decorate graves of the war dead. Many graves in cemeteries across the country, including those at Arlington National Cemetery, were decorated on that day.
By 1900, Decoration Day was called Memorial Day. Even so, the suffering the South endured during and after the war caused many Southerners to ignore Memorial Day and instead observe Confederate Decoration Day, which originally was designated on April 26. In some Southern states, Confederate Decoration Day still is observed.
Then in 1971, the fourth Monday in May was designated as the federal holiday of Memorial Day.
Despite differing opinions on the holiday’s origins, Nancy Carpenter, executive director and CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, takes a broader perspective.
“My son served in Iraq. He returned, but 20 percent of his company did not. I no longer associate the holiday with picnics and the beginning of summer,” she said. “Memorial Day is important because it’s about people who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom.”
One thing is certain. Four Mississippi women engaged America’s conscience at a crucial point in history. War wounds still fresh, Columbus sent a unifying message that resonated with an entire nation. The message remains relevant today.
Nancy Moreland is a new contributor from St. Augustine, Fla.
May/June 2015 Issue
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