In April of 1862, the Confederate Army of the Mississippi attacked the Union Army of the Tennessee, resulting in what was to be known as the Battle of Shiloh. It proved to be the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War up to that point. The nearly 24,000 dead, wounded, captured, or missing totaled almost twice the casualties of any previous battle.
Because the engagement was fought near the Tennessee/Mississippi state line, many of the Confederate dead were buried in Columbus, Mississippi. But some Union soldiers were also laid to rest in the same cemetery, setting up an act of reconciliation that would go on to inspire the country.
In 1866, four women from Columbus decided to decorate the graves of their war dead. This was not unusual. For all of recorded history humans have honored the resting places of their fallen heroes. But it’s what these women did next that drew national attention. Not only did they lay flowers on the tombs of the soldiers who fought on their side, but they also laid them on the graves of their enemies—the Union soldiers. And then they went a step further and sent notes of condolence to the northern soldiers’ families.
This conciliatory gesture was noted in newspapers around the country. And Francis Miles Finch, who read about it in a New York paper, devoted a stanza to it in his 1867 poem The Blue And The Gray:
From the silence of sorrowful hours
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
Alike for friend and foe;
Under the sod and dew
Waiting the judgement day;
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray.
The remarkable gesture by the women in Columbus may very well have been the genesis of Memorial Day as we observe it later this month. Our national day of remembrance for those who died in battle (or from wounds received in battle) was enacted as a recognition of the many local memorial days that were already taking place around the country.
Knowing this story, we have a reason to be doubly inspired this Memorial Day.
First, by the great sacrifice made by the men and women who have died fighting for our country. And second, by the women from northern Mississippi who chose to lay aside bitterness and instead pursue peace through an act of compassion.
We wish you and your family a happy and meaningful Memorial Day.