Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States on the last Monday of May. Americans honor those who have lost their lives while serving in the country’s military. When it comes to the creation and history of the holiday, a common belief is that Waterloo, New York was the first to dedicate a day to commemorate fallen soldiers. David Blight from Yale University claims that it took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1st, 1865, and involved Union Army soldiers being honored and buried at a former racetrack turned war prison.

Photographed By Daniel Bellware, circa January 23, 2021

In a twist of irony, two cities named Columbus have staked their claim to the first Memorial Day observation. There is some evidence suggesting that Columbus, Mississippi prepared the earliest observance,  while other historians contend that another Columbus…the one in Georgia, is where the concept originated.

To be fair, the most concrete evidence seems to point to Georgia taking home the honor of being first.

Richard Gardiner, an associate professor of history education at Columbus State University in Georgia, has co-authored a book on this topic – “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday” (Columbus State University, 2014). Professor Gardiner suggests unequivocal evidence shows that women in Columbus, Georgia began this commemorative tradition when they observed neglected graves and felt moved to honor them with flowers.

Gardiner believes the observance of Memorial Day began April 1866, with the passing of a motion by the Ladies’ Memorial Association in Columbus, Georgia. Secretary Mary Ann Williams wrote a letter to newspapers across the United States and asked people to come together to pay homage to the fallen soldiers from the American Civil War.

The Memorial Day celebration on April, 26, 1866, in Columbus, Georgia. (Image credit: Columbus State University Archives)

The chosen date marked the day when most Confederate troops had surrendered in North Carolina in 1865. Through this event, individuals everywhere were encouraged to remember those lost in wartime conflicts and to honor their memory through flower laying ceremonies on gravesites. Consequently, William’s letter circulated quickly throughout Southern states and on April 26th, 1866, people gathered to lay wreaths and flowers at both Confederate and Union graves.  Moved by the events, news quickly spread of these honorable acts creating what is now known as Memorial Day.

Due to the lack of technology in 1866, letters, newspapers, or any other media delivery times could not be verified instantly. There were no timestamps, digital clocks, or email receipts showing exact times. For this reason, the Columbus, Georgia date might have been misprinted on an official order.  That mistake could be the reason the city of Columbus, Mississippi is recorded as commemorating Memorial Day earlier than intended.

Even though subsequent research by academics such as Professor Gardiner disproves this claim. Still some people maintain their position on this matter despite the empirical evidence debunking it. This eventually led to an official crediting to Columbus, Mississippi as the birthplace of Memorial Day, by President Obama in his 2010 weekly address.

The origins of Memorial Day are open to debate. However, while these acts of remembrance were certainly admirable and part of a longstanding tradition of honoring deceased service members; they alone do not create an official national holiday.

President Lyndon B Johnson signed a proclamation indicating Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Despite the confusion of origin, the day has become a time for Americans to come together in remembrance of those fallen in service to our country – with celebrations and solemn tributes paid.

Comment below and let us know your Memorial Day traditions and/or memories!