COLUMBUS, Ga. — Right on either side of Alabama, there are two places with the same name.
Like the one over in Mississippi, this Columbus was founded in the 1820s and sits just a few minutes from countryside in almost any way you drive.
Residents say it was here, in the years after the Civil War, that Memorial Day was born.
Residents of the other Columbus say that, too.
It does not take much for the historically curious in either town — like Richard Gardiner, a professor of teacher education at Columbus State University here — to explain why theirs is the true originator of a revered American holiday and why the other is well-meaning but simply misguided.
The custom of strewing flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers has innumerable founders, going back perhaps beyond the horizon of recorded history, perhaps as far as war itself. But there is the ancient practice and there is Memorial Day, the specific holiday, arising from an order for the annual decoration of graves that was delivered in 1868 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group made up of Union veterans of the Civil War.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly two dozen places claim to be the primary source of the holiday, an assertion found on plaques, on websites and in the dogged avowals of historians across the country.
Yet each town seems to have different criteria: whether its ceremony was the earliest to honor Civil War dead, or the first one Logan heard about, or the first one that conceived of a national, recurring day.
Waterloo, N.Y., was designated the official birthplace of Memorial Day by presidential proclamation in 1966. But women in Boalsburg, Pa., which has a claim as the holiday’s birthplace, began decorating graves each year as early as October 1864. James Ryan, a retired Army colonel, has descended into the Logan archives and come out with a strong case for the town where he lives, Petersburg, Va. And this is just a partial and by no means definitive list.
But the claims of the two Columbuses, eyeing each other across Alabama, are among the more nuanced and possibly the most intertwined.
“I have a good friend from Columbus, Ga., and we go around and around on this,” said Ken P’Pool, the deputy state historic preservation officer in Mississippi. “This goes back a long, long time.”
Columbus, Miss., was a hospital town, and in many cases a burial site, for both Union and Confederate casualties of Shiloh, brought in by the trainload. And it was in that Columbus where, at the initiation of four women who met in a 12-gabled house on North Fourth Street, a solemn procession was made to Friendship Cemetery on April 25, 1866.
As the story goes, one of the women spontaneously suggested that they decorate the graves of the Union as well as the Confederate dead, as each grave contained someone’s father, brother or son.
A lawyer in Ithaca, N.Y., named Francis Miles Finch read about this reconciliatory gesture and wrote a poem about the ceremony in Columbus, “The Blue and the Gray,” which The Atlantic Monthly published in 1867. “My view is it’s really the poem that inspired the nation,” said Rufus Ward, a retired district attorney.
The Georgians dispute little of this. But they argue that the procession in the other Columbus was actually inspired by the events in their Columbus.
As for the claim of Columbus, Ga., Gardiner points to a local woman named Mary Ann Williams, who in spring 1866 wrote an open letter suggesting “a day be set apart annually” and become a “custom of the country” to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. The letter ran in newspapers all over the South.
One of the remarkable things about Memorial Day, said David Blight, a professor of history at Yale University, was how it arose in the aftermath of the country’s most savage years, and at the initiation of war widows, former slaves and grateful citizens of vastly divergent political views.
In his book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Blight describes a mostly forgotten event in Charleston, S.C., in 1865 at a racetrack turned war prison. Black workmen properly reburied the Union dead that were found there, and a cemetery dedication was held May 1, attended by thousands of freed blacks who marched in procession around the track.
He has called that the first Memorial Day, as it predated most of the other contenders, though he said he has no evidence that it led to Logan’s call for a national holiday. “I’m much more interested in the meaning that’s being conveyed in that incredible ritual than who’s first.”