Confederate Memorial Day became an annual state holiday in Alabama in 1901. It was originally celebrated on April 26, the date in 1865 when Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered at Durham Station, North Carolina, and ended major hostilities in the Civil War. The state later changed its observance to the fourth Monday in April to give state employees a long weekend. In 1998, Gov. Forrest "Fob" James proclaimed the entire month of April to be Confederate History Month.
After the Civil War, the laying of flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers was a very common expression of remembrance in both the South and the North. One of the earliest documented occurances of grave decoration took place on April 26, 1865, when Sue Adams of Jackson, Mississippi, placed flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in that city. A year later, a group of women in Selma, Dallas County, commemorated the Battle of Selma with grave decorations on April 2, and Columbus, Georgia, women memorialized the anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9. A letter to the editor of the Columbus newspaper subsequently proposed that April 26 be designated "the South's All Souls Day."
Inspired by the Columbus letter, Mary Anne Phelan of Montgomery became a leading proponent of the women's effort to memorialize Confederate troops in Alabama. She and her husband, Judge John Dennis Phelan, were the parents of 12 children. Six of their seven sons fought in the war. Two were wounded, and two died. Phelan convinced the Ladies Society for the Burial of Deceased Alabama Soldiers, founded days earlier on April 16, to change its name to the Ladies Memorial Association and to conduct a Confederate Memorial Day service at Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery on April 26. The ritual they established in 1866 has been repeated every year since without interruption. By 1869, the association had raised enough money to build an obelisk at Oakwood and a pavilion in which to hold its annual ceremonies. The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Admiral Semmes Chapter No. 5 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy decorates the graves in Auburn's Pine Hill Cemetery every year, and Confederate Memorial Park in Chilton County also holds a ceremony every year. The Ladies Memorial Association was also instrumental in raising the funds for the Confederate Monument on the grounds of the state capitol.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Confederate Memorial Day was also a bank and school holiday. Girls would assemble at dawn to make daisy chains and march in procession to Oakwood Cemetery with members of the Ladies Memorial Association, veterans, dignitaries, and others to honor the 724 Confederate soldiers who are buried there. The ceremony featured songs, speeches, and prayers, and participants placed flowers, wreaths, and flags on the graves of veterans.
Memorial organizations suspended activities during World War II, and after the war many never returned to their previous levels of membership and activity. Despite its waning popularity,
Confederate Memorial Day celebrations are still held in numerous towns across the state.
Fahs, Alice, and Joan Waugh. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Wilson, Charles Reagan, and James G. Thomas. Myth, Manners, and Memory. Vol. 4, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Cameron Freeman Napier
Published August 28, 2008
Last updated July 9, 2013