The following was written by Kenton Kilmer with the Library of Congress May 21, 1958. You can find this along with other information regarding Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) in the manuscript collection MS 337 in the Billups-Garth Archives.
Notice that many places across the United States lay claim to hosting the first Memorial Day. Many still debate the issue today. The followings is one individuals conclusions.
THE ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF MEMORIAL DAY
“Memorial Day has many histories. Many a state, and many a town lays claim to the origin of this excellent custom. And this is right, because, as brook after brook and stream after stream will join to form a river, the Memorial Day observances sprang up spontaneously or through the contagion of example, in many places at about the same time, and very quickly became nationwide. The question of which was first may be a matter of the calendar, or it may be a matter of definition. What is the distinctive feature of Memorial Day? It might be taken to be the setting aside of a particular day each year in honor of our fallen soldiers – it might be the custom of decorating their graves, which gave the occasion its other name of Decoration Day – or one might hold that Memorial Day only reached its fullness when, on an appointed annual occasion, graves of northern and southern soldiers alike were decorated in solemn ceremony.
In Columbus, Georgia, in January, 1866, Miss Lizzie Rutherford and some of her friends formed the Ladies’ Memorial Association for the purpose of caring for the graves of the Confederate dead, and Miss Rutherford proposed April 26 as an appropriate day for an annual commemorative ceremony and decoration of the graves. This date, the anniversary of the surrender of the last Confederate leader of a major force to lay down his arms, General Joseph E. Johnston, was later adopted by the newly-formed group, and a letter suggesting that others observe the date similarly was written on March 12, 1866, and sent to women and organizations in many cities and to many newspapers. Columbus, Georgia, duly conducted its memorial services and decoration of Confederate graves on the appointed day, April 26, 1866.
Meanwhile, in another town that happened, coincidentally, to be named Columbus, similar plans were going forward. Sometime in the spring of 1866, a group of ladies of Columbus, Mississippi [Miss Matt Morton, Mrs. Green T. Hill, Mrs. Jane Fontaine, and Mrs. Augusta M. Sykes], determined to make the decoration of soldiers’ graves an annual occurrence, and selected April 25 as the date. On that day a procession was held, the ladies bearing flowers to the cemetery, and the ceremony at the cemetery included a memorial address and a prayer, as well as the decorating of the graves with flowers. The Mississippi Index of the next day, April 26, 1866, comments “We were glad to see that no distinction was made between our own dead and about forty Federal soldiers, who slept their last sleep by them. It proved the exalted, unselfish tone of the female character. Confederate and Federal, once enemies, now friends – receiving this tribute of respect.”
Columbus, Mississippi, thus can rightly claim to be not only one day ahead of Columbus, Georgia, in its observance of Memorial Day, but more generous in its distribution of the tributes of honor and mourning. Also, it was out of the observance in Columbus, Mississippi, as reported in the newspapers, that the New York state lawyer, Francis Miles Finch, drew the inspiration for his famous and popular poem, “The Blue and the Gray.” At the head of this poem, as published in the Atlantic Monthly in September, 1867, appears this note, “The women of Columbus, Mississippi, animated by noble sentiments, have shown themselves impartial in their offerings to the memory of the dead. They strewed flowers on the graves of the Confederate and of the National soldiers.” Andrew Dickson White has well said, “All the orations and sermons and appeals for the restoration of kindly feeling between the two sections have been exceeded in real effect upon the national heart by this simple poem.”
Carbondale, Illinois, lays claim to the honor of having begun the movement that led to the national celebration of Memorial Day, because on April 29, 1866, a Sunday, the inhabitants of that town conducted an all-day observance, including a parade, a barbecue, several speeches, a prayer, and the decorating of the graves of some 20 Union soldiers. The fact that makes Carbondale important in the history of the national observance of Memorial Day is that the principle speaker on this occasion was General John A. Logan. Undoubtedly, his Carbondale experience was in his mind when, on May 5, 1868, as First Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, he issued the general order providing for nationwide observance of Decoration Day on May 30. This date was chosen, not as a significant anniversary, but in order that all over the country, there might be flowers in bloom that could be used in decorating the graves.
Petersburg, Virginia, likewise takes an honorable part in the chain of events leading up to the establishment of the national Memorial Day by General Logan’s order. Inspired by the example of the ladies of Mississippi, the ladies of Petersburg marked the anniversary of the successful defense of the city by its civilian inhabitants, June 9, 1864, by decorating the graves of the Confederates, civilian and soldier, who had fallen in that and subsequent actions in and about the city. Petersburg has continued the custom ever since, adding its local observance of June 9 to the observance, with the rest of Virginia, of Confederate Memorial Day on May 30. It was the custom in Petersburg to decorate the graves, not only with flowers, but with little Confederate flags, and in the early spring of 1868, Mrs. John A. Logan, making a trip among the battlefields and cemeteries of Virginia, was touched at the sight in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg of the many Confederate graves, each decorated by the tiny Confederate flag that had been placed there on the past June 9. Mrs. Logan, according to her own account, described this to General Logan, who was much interested and at once proposed to issue an order for the decoration of the graves of Union soldiers. After some discussion with other G.A.R. officers, the date of May 30 was decided upon, and the order was issued.
As the years have rolled by, more and more people have come to feel as the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, did, that those who died bravely fighting for that land and government to which they felt they owed their loyalty, deserved an equal honor and tribute of sorrow, whether they were the blue or the gray. Their heroism is remembered, with Lexington and Saratoga, with the Argonne and the Normandy beaches, with Inchon and Pusan, as part of the rich and living American tradition.”