In the aftermath of the Civil War, white southerners felt the need to grieve for the casualties of the conflict as well as for the defeated cause. One of the first ritualistic mediums created for communal mourning was Decoration Day, also known throughout the South as Confederate Memorial Day. This springtime regional holiday never acquired a single calendar date, as did the federal version. Even when the 1917 Mississippi legislature added Confederate Memorial Day on 26 April to the list of official state holidays, many communities continued to celebrate on dates of their own choosing. Raymond, for example, observed Decoration Day on the anniversary of a local battle, while other towns opted for the birthday of a favorite Confederate hero.
In keeping with Victorian bereavement customs, women assumed a leading and organizing role in Decoration Day commemorations, which typically included a procession of townspeople to a nearby cemetery with Confederate remains, the adornment or “decoration” of gravestones with wreaths and flowers, and prayers and speeches. The season, the blossoms, and the orations all evoked the idea of regeneration: in addition to offering an outlet for grief, a primary purpose of the ritual was to renew the community’s memory of the Confederacy and its casualties. Speakers gave meaning to this sacrifice by praising the virtues of the deceased, defending the righteousness of their cause, and even proclaiming the ultimate vindication of these principles.
Several cities across the region claim to have originated the holiday. One such contender in Mississippi is Jackson, which held a ceremony on 26 April 1865. Reacting to the news of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Sue Langdon Vaughan sent a notice to a local paper requesting that “Daughters of the Southland” meet at Greenwood Cemetery to garland the graves of Confederate heroes. Large numbers of townspeople and soldiers turned out to witness the observance, and in 1891 an inscription on the Mississippi Monument to the Confederate Dead memorialized this event by asserting, “Decoration Day Originated in Jackson, Mississippi.”
In 1866 three Columbus women organized a 25 April procession to Friendship Cemetery, where approximately fourteen hundred Union and Confederate graves received floral tributes. The impartiality of this homage caused accounts to spread as far as New York City, where the story inspired Francis Miles Finch to write his popular poem, “The Blue and the Gray.” In 1932 the Children of the American Revolution erected a modest monument in Friendship Cemetery proclaiming it the site of the first Decoration Day.
Although audience size and participating locales have diminished dramatically since World War I, local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, among other organizations, continue to observe Decoration Day across Mississippi.
- Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (1987)
- Sally Leigh McWhite, “Echoes of the Lost Cause: Civil War Reverberations in Mississippi, 1865 to 2001” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2003)
- Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (1980)