Today, Georgia state employees are enjoying a holiday that for well over a century had been celebrated as Confederate Memorial Day, but has since been ripped from those historical moorings. Changing times and perspective have rendered the day an orphan holiday, without meaning or cause, to the extent that the date is now listed on the official calendar under the generic term “state holiday,” with no hint to its roots.
We can do better than this.
The tradition of Confederate Memorial Day began 150 years ago here in Georgia, thanks to the work of the Ladies Aid Society in Columbus. In the spring of 1866, members of the society sent a letter to newspapers throughout the South, “from the Potomac to the Rio Grande,” proposing that April 26 be set aside “and be handed down through time as a religious custom of the South, to wreathe our martyred dead with flowers.” ¹
“Let every city, town and village join in the pleasant duty,” the letter from the ladies of Columbus read. “Let all alike be remembered, from the heroes of Manassas to those who expired in the death throes of our hallowed cause. We’ll crown alike the honored resting places of the immortal Jackson in Virginia, Johnson at Shiloh, Cleburne in Tennessee and the host of gallant privates who adorned our ranks.”
According to the letter, those who fell in the war “had rallied in defense of the holiest and noblest cause for which heroes fought, or trusting women prayed.” And that of course is our current problem. From the beginning, Confederate Memorial Day was an effort to honor not just the fallen but also their cause, and their cause was not “hallowed”. Contrary to the mythology that the white South quickly and consciously embraced after the war, the causes for which Confederate soldiers fought and died included the preservation of slavery, the permanent subjugation of black Americans and the dissolution of the United States of America.
Given that historical baggage, what do we now do with this holiday? Do we cancel it? Do we leave it on the calendar, its relevance whitewashed away in embarrassment? History gives us another option.
Why did members of the Ladies Memorial Society select April 26 as the day of commemoration? They did so because on that date in 1865, the 89,000 Confederate troops still fighting as the Army of Tennessee, under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, finally laid down their arms and surrendered to Union Gen. William T. Sherman at the Bennett farmhouse near Durham, N.C.
The surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee on April 9 at Appomattox is today given more prominence in the history books, but here in Georgia at the time, Johnston’s surrender was at least as significant. In terms of troops, it was the largest single surrender of the war and more importantly, it officially ended the conflict in Georgia and the Carolinas. It is a day of genuine significance to the state’s history.
So let’s reframe the holiday a bit.
Let’s keep it on the calendar, but let’s repurpose it as something like “Reunion Day” or “Restoration Day,” a day in which the state of Georgia commemorates the end of its role in the Civil War and officially marks its re-entry and reintegration into the United States of America. That’s something worth celebrating, right?
It’s not something that a governor could do on his own, through executive action. Doing it right would require official action by the General Assembly, as elected representatives of the people of Georgia. However, state leaders ought to jump at the opportunity to sponsor legislation that could turn an awkward symbol of divisiveness into a confirmation of unity.
¹ The official date remains April 26, but on the state calendar it is celebrated this year on Monday, April 25. It is also widely considered the inspiration to the national Memorial Day celebrated at the end of May.