History is the interpretation of facts, according to Mike Jones, director of General John A. Logan Museum.
The museum’s current display on the history of Memorial Day gives visitors facts and asks questions to help them interpret those facts, some of which have spawned controversy surrounding the birthplace of Memorial Day services.
He explained that historians sort facts and look for primary sources or sources that give firsthand accounts of an event, person or work.
One fact is sure: Gen. John A. Logan, as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order 11 designating May 30 for the purpose of decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the Civil War. Logan and N.P. Chipman, adjutant-general, signed the order.
The order also specifies how those comrades are to be remembered — garland graves with the choicest flowers of springtime, raised flags above them and in this solemn presence, renew pledges to aid those left behind, the widows and orphans of soldiers and sailors.
Jones said this order is the basis of the national Memorial Day observance.
Go back to 1866, and Jones said that is where the controversy lies. More than two dozen cities claim to have held the first Memorial Day or Decoration Day service. In addition to Carbondale other cities staking claims include Charleston, South Carolina; Columbus, Mississippi; Columbus, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.
“My conclusion is that the Columbus, Georgia, is right, but I don’t agree that Carbondale didn’t happen,” Jones said.
After reading the book “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday” by Daniel Bellware and Richard Gardiner and doing some research of his own, Jones believes their account of the first Memorial Day is correct.
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In March 1866, members of the Ladies Memorial Association in Columbus, Georgia, voted to designate April 26 as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers. Not wanting it to be a local event, they sent letters to newspapers across the South, along with a few Northern newspapers, asking other cities and villages to join them in honoring the fallen soldiers.
The letter calls on people “from the Potomac to the Rio Grande” to observe a day of decorating graves of the fallen.
While they were successful in getting the graves decorated, they did not get those towns to decorate graves on April 26. Events are documented throughout the South into June 1866.
In Columbus, Mississippi, they chose to honor their fallen soldiers on April 25. The women noticed the 32 barren graves of Union Army fallen, and decorated them with flowers, too.
“I think Columbus, Mississippi, was the first Memorial Day that intended to be observed on an annual basis,” Jones said.
While Columbus, Mississippi, was the first observance, evidence points to the idea coming from the women in Columbus, Georgia.
Memorial Day services took place April 29, 1866, in Woodlawn Cemetery in Carbondale. The city of Carbondale’s website says it was the site of the first Memorial Day service in Illinois, and one of the first in the nation. However, the only primary source to confirm the ceremony was a note found in the Bible of James Green. Later, the Bible was destroyed in a fire, but a photograph of the note is in the Logan Museum exhibit.
“In 1927, Carbondale BPW was organized and its first project was cleaning up Woodlawn Cemetery,” Jones said, adding that it had fallen into disrepair.
Stories in Carbondale Free Press from the late 1920s through the early 1930s about Carbondale BPW recall that first Memorial Day service in Woodlawn Cemetery. Flower girls from the first service in 1866 are documented as taking part in services until 1950 and listed by name.
“Woodlawn Cemetery never claimed to be the first Memorial Day, just the first in the North,” Jones said.
Jones invites everyone to go through the exhibit, interpret the facts presented and draw his or her own conclusions.
Bellware and Gardiner will sign copies of their book as part of the Memorial Day observance jointly hosted by the museum and city of Carbondale.