Contact: James Carskadon
COLUMBUS, Miss.—A Columbus cemetery known as one of the sites where the Memorial Day holiday began could soon be home to another memorial.
Historians with the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State and local historian Rufus Ward are exploring Friendship Cemetery in Columbus to locate previously unknown and unmarked graves of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Later this fall, University of Mississippi Associate Professor of Anthropology Tony Boudreaux will use remote sensing technology to explore the site believed to hold unmarked Union graves. The leaders of the project announced the undertaking Thursday [May 24], in advance of Memorial Day weekend.
Depending on what the researchers find, a memorial could be put in place to mark the burial spot of the soldiers, who likely were treated and died at the Columbus military hospital during the war, Ward said.
“If we find graves here, most likely, they will be the graves of some of Grant’s soldiers from the battle of Shiloh,” Ward said. “Columbus’ role in Memorial Day is being the place where both Union graves and Confederate graves were decorated with flowers in 1866. That stirred the conscience of the entire nation. That was all done because of the decoration of graves that were around here, and we hope to find them.”
According to Ward’s research, at least 51 Union soldiers died in Columbus during the Civil War. Most were buried in what is now Friendship Cemetery, along more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers. Those graves of Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated by Columbus women on April 25, 1866, an act of reconciliation that received national praise.
The 1866 memorial of Civil War soldiers in Columbus inspired Frances Miles Finch’s classic poem “The Blue and the Gray” and was one of the events that was an inspiration for the creation of Memorial Day, which honors all who died while serving in America’s armed forces. Over 140 years later, President Barack Obama recognized the historic act during his 2010 Memorial Day address.
In 1867, most of the former Union soldiers’ graves were moved to Corinth National Cemetery in Alcorn County, but eight graves remain unaccounted for. Recently, an 1877 Columbus newspaper article resurfaced describing a “Decoration Day” ceremony where flowers were still being placed on the graves of Union soldiers. However, no Union soldier graves are marked at the cemetery today.
Now, historians from the Grant Presidential Library at MSU, Ward and Boudreaux are using non-invasive remote sensing techniques in an attempt to locate the last remaining graves of Union soldiers in Friendship Cemetery.
John Marszalek, MSU Giles Distinguished Professor of history emeritus and executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, said the local research project fits with the Civil War expertise of MSU. Collections housed at the Grant Presidential Library have been used in the research of several prominent works on Grant and the Civil War.
“This is one of those occasions that we sometimes get in modern times where we are able to look at something we forgot about,” Marszalek said. “It’s something that was important to people 100 years ago, but we’ve forgotten about it for a while. We’re excited to come and see if we can find something.”
The research projected is co-sponsored by the Billups-Garth Foundation, Ulysses S. Grant Association and the University of Mississippi Center for Archaeological Research.
Boudreaux, a Mississippi State alumnus and director of the UM Center for Archaeological Research, said he will use the remote sensing equipment to look for areas where the dirt has been disturbed and look for grave signatures. He will first use the equipment on known grave sites from the same era to see what the signature may look like.
“This equipment is really dependent on local soil conditions,” Ward said. “When conditions are right, you can absolutely see an outline of a grave shaft. If conditions are right, we’ll be able to point to locations and say where people are.”
MSU is one of six universities housing a presidential library. For more, see www.usgrantlibrary.org.
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.