Old times here are being forgotten, and Southern kids left rootless

Date published: 3/26/2006

KENNESAW, Ga.–There was a time when America remembered family. But now have we forgotten women like Lizzie Rutherford of Columbus, Ga., who on a cold January day worked to clean the graves of Confederate soldiers? She and the members of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus would lead in efforts to take care of the Southern soldiers’ graves and get Confederate Memorial Day recognized throughout the South.

How can we expect our children to know about their heritage when school bands no longer play "Dixie"? Young folks once heard stories from their grandpa and teacher about the American soldiers who for 200 years marched off to war. "Onward, Christian Soldiers" was still included in standard American songbooks.

Once upon a time the South’s businesses and schools closed on Confederate Memorial Day. This was a special time for parades and memorial speeches at the local soldiers cemetery. Tens of thousands of people made their way to the Confederate cemetery, and children delighted in catching a glimpse of a Confederate veteran.

When the War Between the States ended, women of the North and South formed memorial organizations. They made sure the soldiers got Christian burials and were remembered. Great monuments were erected to the soldiers in blue and gray and still can be seen from many town squares and soldiers cemeteries.

For more than 100 years, the good people of the Ladies’ Memorial Association, United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Sons of Confederate Veterans have continued the tradition of Confederate Memorial Day in April. Other states recognize Confederate Memorial Day on May 10 or June 3. June 3 is the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Since about 1995, April has also become known as Confederate History Month. It is written that the first Confederate Memorial Day was held in Columbus, Ga. Some say it was the idea of Lizzie Rutherford, president of the Columbus Chapter of the Ladies’ Memorial Association, and their secretary, Mrs. Charles J. Williams. Mrs. Williams’ husband served as colonel of the 1st Georgia Regiment, CSA, during the War Between the States. He died of disease in 1862 and is buried in his hometown of Columbus. Disease killed more soldiers during the war than did the battles.

Mrs. Williams and her daughter visited his grave often and cleared the weeds and leaves from it, then placed flowers on it. Her daughter also pulled the weeds from other soldiers’ graves near her father’s. It saddened the little girl that many graves were unmarked. With tears of pride she said to her mother, "These are my soldiers’ graves." The little girl became ill and passed away in her childhood. Mrs. Williams’ grief was almost unbearable.

One day, while visiting the graves of her husband and daughter, Mrs. Williams looked at all of the unkempt soldiers’ graves and remembered what her daughter had told her. She knew what she had to do. With permission from Lizzie Rutherford, Williams wrote a letter that was published in the newspapers of the South asking the women of Dixie for help. She asked that organizations be formed to take care of the thousands of Confederate graves from the Potomac River to the Rio Grande.

She also asked state legislatures to set aside an April day to remember the men in gray.

With her leadership, many Southern states adopted April 26 as Confederate Memorial Day. Mrs. Williams died in 1874, but lived to see her native Georgia adopt April 26 as Confederate Memorial Day. It is still a legal holiday today.

The men and women who served the South during the War Between the States came from many races and religions. There was Irish-born Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, black Southerner Amos Rucker, Jewish-born Judah P. Benjamin, Mexican-born Col. Santos Benavides, and American Indian Gen. Stand Watie.

What’s your local historical group planning during April 2006 for Confederate History Month?

Copyright 2006, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.

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