A Real Story of Memorial Day

The origins of this weekend's holiday, linking Mississippi and The Atlantic
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Opening verse of "The Blue and the Gray," as published in the September, 1867, issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Happy Memorial Day! We were in Columbus, Mississippi recently and learned of an amazing story that included these three elements: the Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, the origin of Memorial Day, and The Atlantic.

Here is the background: Columbus 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 well known as a hospital town.

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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 as well. (As part of a nationwide effort to relocate Union soldiers to national cemeteries, those soldiers were later re-interred at Corinth National Cemetery, in northern Mississippi.)  

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. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is now told and retold in Mississippi as being the occasion of the original Memorial Day.

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. We went looking for the bound volume of the magazine on the shelves of the current offices of The Atlantic, as the magazine is called now, in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. (In 2005, the magazine relocated to Washington, D.C., from Boston, which had been its home since 1857. My husband, Jim, has a small, and cluttered!, office there overlooking the Kennedy Center right across the street.)

Here is a photo of the opening page of the two-page poem, taken yesterday at the magazine's headquarters from its bound volume of The Atlantic Monthly from 1867.

In 1991, Carl Butler, a teacher from the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science (MSMS) in Columbus, began a tradition of evening performances, called Tales from the Crypt, at the Friendship Cemetery.  Each year now, students from Chuck Yarborough’s US history class research the lives of individuals buried in the cemetery, using records from the town’s rich archives at the local library and Cultural Heritage Foundation.  Several students are chosen to perform as their character, presenting the life stories.

As Chuck Yarborough describes the evolving program:

Over past twelve years, we've worked hard to research and tell stories that reflect the racial, ethnic, gender, and spiritual diversity of our area - including all the challenging realities that are part of our collective past.

And as one MSMS students reflected, the school's efforts to confront history and address the “challenging realities” seem to be paying off. Sabrina Moore, an MSMS senior, writes in an essay called “What My School Means to Me”:

"MSMS is often referred to as the most diverse square mile in the state of Mississippi, alluding to academic interests, ethnicities, belief systems, aspirations, and much more," a high school senior writes. "It's true."

The video below is a segment from this year's Tales from the Crypt at Friendship Cemetery. The trumpeter is Cortez Thomas, from Clarksdale. The students introducing the segment are Stephanie Smith, Columbus; Madhav Nallani, Greenville; and LaMarra Coleman, Louisville. The four Columbus women are played by Maddi Gibson, Ocean Springs; Madyson Carter, Brandon; Camille Dent, Jackson; and Kaylyn Davis, Shaw. Special thanks to Wade Leonard of MSMS for putting together this video and to Chuck Yarborough for guiding his students in Tales from the Crypt.

Happy Memorial Day from The Atlantic and from Mississippi.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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