The Real First Memorial Day

Widely acknowledged as the precursor of Memorial Day, observance of a Decoration Day began shortly after the end of hostilities in the Civil War, when citizens began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Many cities claim to be home of this observance, including Waterloo, NY, Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Columbus, GA, and much closer to home, Columbus, Mississippi. In their 2014 book, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware state that according to the Veteran’s Administration, at least 25 cities across America claim to have originated the Memorial Day holiday. While numerous historians feel that the true history may never be known, this book rejects that claim and explores the factual history of the holiday and shows that most of the better-known stories are mere myths and local legends; that being said, Jackson, Mississippi offers substantial proof that the first Decoration Day was held on April 26, 1865 in the historic cemetery in downtown Jackson now known as Greenwood.

As the story goes, citizens of the Confederacy were well aware of the strategic importance of Appomattox; those in Jackson, Mississippi were already shaken by the fall of Richmond on Apr. 4, 1865, and news of Grant’s victory reached Governor Charles Clark some days later. In her diary his daughter recalled the telegram being passed around: “Yes, it was all over. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox! Like a thunderbolt it fell on all of us. We were stunned. I remember feeling astonishment that we were not all dead.” Many if not most were already resigned to defeat and were shocked by the assassination of Lincoln less than a week later, so it was a somber group that assembled on Tuesday evening, April 25 at The Oaks, home of former Jackson mayor James Boyd on North Jefferson Street. Just before midnight two couriers arrived with the news that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor and Union Major General E.R.S. Canby had agreed to a truce in Meridian, darkening the mood. Among them was Sue Langdon Adams, a Missouri native and niece of Mississippi’s Senator Robert Adams. A nurse, Sue had infiltrated Union lines bringing medical supplies back for Confederate forces and informing Confederate authorities of Union troop deployments.

When the news of the truce came, Sue was reading Plutarch’s Lives, where it’s mentioned that the graves of fallen soldiers were adorned with wreathes of laurel. Fearing that the reoccupation of Jackson was imminent, she tore out a blank page and penned an appeal to the women of Jackson to gather the next day at the city cemetery at two in the afternoon and adorn the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. One of the young couriers took the note and raced to the office of the newspaper, Mississippian, just in time for it to be printed in the next morning’s edition. The next day, a large group of citizens gathered in the cemetery soon every soldier’s grave was covered with floral designs of every kind. Troops led by Colonel McFarland marched through the cemetery as their band played Handel’s “Dead March” from Saul. As Adams moved through the rows of graves, she saw some that were unadorned and asked why there were no flowers on them. Told they were the graves of Union soldiers, she replied, “I will garland them with my pink roses for mothers and sisters sobbed prayers over them as they marched away. Maybe they fell in the riven flags in the battle of West Jackson.”

Adams later moved to California and married a Judge Vaughan. She died in Arlington, Virginia in 1911 and is buried in the Mount Olivet United Methodist Cemetery there. Her memorial efforts were acknowledged in an inscription on a monument which was unveiled on the Jackson Capitol Green in 1891:

“It recks not where their bodies lie,
By bloody hillside, plain or river,
Their names are bright on Fame’s proud sky,
Their deeds of valor live forever.”

Decoration Day Originated in Jackson, Miss. April 26th 1865
By Sue Landon Vaughan

Text by Cecile Wardlaw, based on research by Peter Miazza