by Larry Upthegrove
Placing of flowers on graves is a centuries-old custom. After the Civil War, Mrs. Mary Williams of Columbus, Ga., felt better each time she visited and placed flowers on the of grave her dead hero and husband, Col. C.J. Williams. Eventually, her little girl started placing some flowers on other soldiers’ graves nearby, giving her mother the idea of an annual day with all citizens decorating and honoring those who had given their lives in the Civil War.
In April 1866, Mrs. Williams shared her ideas at a meeting of women in Columbus, and they heartily approved and appointed her to write a letter and get it published in major populated areas of the south, imploring all to join in on a specific date: when Gen. Johnston surrendered to Gen. Sherman in North Carolina on April 26, 1865.
Inspired by Mrs. Williams’ letter published in the local paper, Mrs. Joseph Johnson (formerly Eugenia Goode of Atlanta) enlisted the aid of Mrs. W. W. Clayton and her daughters, Julia and Sarah (Sallie), to use their social connections and the newspapers to help to call the ladies of the city together and make preparations for the Memorial Day events. Mrs. Johnson served for three years under Mrs. Isaac Winship as secretary of the Atlanta Hospital Association during the war, and all of the Atlanta organizers eventually become residents of Oakland Cemetery.
The community responded, and in two days $350 was raised to hire workmen to come into the City Cemetery (later to be renamed Oakland Cemetery) and remove the overgrown blackberry brambles and other undergrowth.
The ladies sent to Stone Mountain for cedar, which the Georgia Railroad brought to Atlanta free of charge. For days, the ladies make wreathes, crosses, and other evergreen designs to complement the flowers picked for the occasion. The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer prints news of preparation progress every day, and helped to inspire every business to close at noon on April 26 – and every April 26 for years to come – allowing citizens to line the streets and watch the parade from downtown to the City Cemetery. Citizens follow behind the procession and become a part of the parade to the Confederate burial grounds, where ceremonies are held.
There is no formal oration in 1866, due to orders from officers of the occupying Federal army. However, Colonel E.F. Hoge – Julia Clayton’s future husband and later the founder of the Atlanta Journal – provides some well-chosen words to introduce the chaplain of the occasion, Rev. Robert Q. Mallard. Rev. Mallard, pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church, offers an eloquent prayer after a few opening remarks. The solemn ceremony is concluded, but the memorial has just begun. From the organizers of this event will spring forth the Ladies Memorial Association, which will be active for years and eventually become the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In the day’s Atlanta Daily Intelligencer, the following was probably written by the editor, John H. Steele:
“…To-day the ladies of this city will visit and place garlands upon the little mounds that mark the resting place of that Spartan band whose weary heads are at rest forever. Many of them found a resting place in the soil which was crimsoned by the life-tide that gushed forth so freely at their country’s call; and it is fit and proper that woman’s hand should place flowers on the precious spot, and mingle her tears with the sacred sod. No tender hand wiped the death-damp from that brow, or willing ear heard the last faint, whispered message to the loved ones at home; no useless coffin enclosed that manly form, but while a carnival of death reigned around, it was hurried from sight, by rude hands having other and sterner duties to perform. To-day let tender hands do all that now can be done, and while the distant mother or sister performs the same sad office elsewhere, they may indulge the pleasing reflection that their loved one is not being neglected.”
When in his nineties, Stephens Mitchell – future Oakland resident and brother of Margaret Mitchell – writes about the first Memorial Day he remembers as a small boy:
“First, I remember, came the militia outfits—we now call them National Guards—infantry, cavalry, artillery. There was heavy cheering and bands played; everyone applauded, and horses pranced and people waved.
But then—up the street toward the Grand Theatre—you could hear silence falling. There were red flags in a great cluster and behind them a long column of men in civilian attire marching. There were no bands, no cheering—only the shuffle of the rather elderly gentlemen who were there. As they passed underneath the red flags with the blue saltire and the white stars, I looked at the faces that seemed careworn, sad, and yet proud. I looked at my little red-haired mother beside me, and I saw the tears roll down her cheeks. My father rather embarrassedly wiped his away. All around me tears fell, and there was a silence like to that when the Host is elevated. No one needed to tell me that this was my flag and these were my heroes and my people.”
Those young men we honor today have individually faded from memory. Those with families have the legacy of descendants, but the majority of the young men never had the opportunity to marry before they gave up their lives. All they have is the stone in Oakland Cemetery, if they have that, and a name in a family Bible somewhere with nothing underneath it.