Memorial Day's Civil War Roots

Memorial Day is an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May, honoring both men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Many do not know that Memorial Day traces its beginnings to the late 1860's following the American Civil War. The day for remembrance was originally called Decoration Day, but Memorial Day as we know it now did not become an official federal holiday until 1971.

By the late 1860's, soldier's graves were being decorated with flowers, and ceremonies remembering the fallen were accompanied by poem and prayer. Ladies' Memorial Associations in the South were organized to beautify Confederate cemeteries because the Federal Government didn't maintain them. National Cemeteries were established for the Union Dead, and Congress passed a law to establish and protect national cemeteries in 1867. Numerous people and places have been credited with the origin of Memorial Day, both in the North and the South. John A. Morgan, commander-in-chief of the Union veteran's Grand Army of the Republic borrowed the same format being used by Ladies' Memorial Associations in 1868, calling the day of remembrance Decoration Day. In his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land”. All Northern states officially recognized Decoration Day by 1890, although many Southern states continued to honor the Confederate dead on separate dates. With the Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971, Memorial Day became a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America.

Many Southern states still practice Confederate Decoration Day in addition to Memorial Day. Confederate Decoration Day in Tennessee is officially June 3rd, also the birthday of Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. This year, Confederate Decoration Day will be observed on Saturday, May 30th at 10am at Bethel Cemetery. The event is sponsored by the Longstreet-Zollicoffer Sons of Confederate Veterans, Camp 89. The guest speaker this year is SCV Commander-in-Chief, Christopher Sullivan. The service typically take place around the 48' tall Confederate monument that was installed by the Ladies' Memorial Association in 1892.

On Memorial Day, the 79th NY Highlanders will conduct a Memorial Day Service at 11am at the National Cemetery located at 939 Tyson Street in memory of the Union dead. A Union monument was erected at the Knoxville National Cemetery around 1900, slightly taller than the Confederate monument, topped with a large bronze eagle. The eagle atop the monument was destroyed by lightning in 1904, and was replaced by a Union soldier in 1906.

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Below you will find a history of Knoxville's own Ladies' Memorial Association written by the Hazen Historical Museum Foundation's Vice President, Arin Streeter.

“It was the natural and affectionate desire of the Southern women of Knoxville, that the graves of Confederate soldiers who are buried here should not be neglected.”

Almost immediately after the end of the war, ladies’ Confederate memorial associations began to organize across the South.  Their stated purposes were straightforward but ambitious – to remove from wayside and battlefield Southern dead, to place them in cemeteries of their own, and to build monuments memorializing their sacrifice.  Knoxville’s Ladies’ Memorial Association first met in the old Union Bank Building on May 13, 1868.  They soon applied to the Knox County Court to be allowed custody of the portion of the county cemetery in which so many Confederate soldiers were buried.  A charter was granted to the Association on October 7, 1872, and a deed for the property was executed on January 30, 1873.  It was given the name “Bethel Cemetery.”

The cemetery had no regular staff until 1884, when P. Johnson became sexton.  In 1886, he was succeeded by William Daniel Winstead, who completed this caretaker’s cottage. 

Around 1882, the Ladies’ Memorial Association had determined to erect a memorial, and set about the protracted task of raising money for the project.  The cornerstone was laid with considerable ceremony on May 21, 1891.  Twenty-seven years after the end of the war, the completed monument was unveiled on Memorial Day, May 19, 1892.  Ceremonies began with a parade through the city led by General Edmund Kirby Smith, former commander of the Confederate Department of East Tennessee.  The principal oration was delivered by United States Senator William B. Bate, a former Confederate general and a former governor of Tennessee.  His address was heard by thousands who gathered at Bethel Cemetery for the occasion.

The monument consists of a shaft surmounted by a north-facing Confederate soldier at the “parade rest” position.  The soldier, designed to appear life-sized when viewed from ground level, was designed by Knoxville artist Lloyd Branson, and sculpted by George Hoyle Whitaker, a former soldier in the 143rd New York Infantry.  The monument, made of Tennessee gray marble and measuring twelve feet square at the base and forty-eight feet high, was erected by the Knoxville firm of George W. Callahan, at a cost of $4,500.  Contributors to the fund included both Confederate and Union veterans.

Burials of Confederate veterans and widows continued at Bethel Cemetery until the mid-twentieth century.  The Ladies’ Memorial Association held annual Memorial Day services and continued to make improvements to the site.  In 1897, a stone wall and iron gates were constructed along the front of the cemetery.  The concrete wall around the east, north, and west sides of the property was constructed in 1908.  Other improvements included markers honoring Mrs. Joseph T. McTeer (Amanda Morgan White McTeer; a granddaughter of James Park and a great-granddaughter of James White, she died in 1943 at the age of 98) and Miss Missie Ault, as well as repairs to the cottage occupied by the Winsteads.

As its members aged, the Ladies’ Memorial Association suffered a gradual decline in membership.  Between 1900 and 1959, the group’s income amounted to less than $2,000.  On April 18, 1959, in view of the family’s many years of service, the Ladies’ Memorial Association deeded Bethel Cemetery to Mamie Winstead, William’s daughter, and presented her with the remaining $200 in their treasury.  She was empowered to take such steps as might be necessary to preserve the historic cemetery.

On November 21, 1989, at the age of 91, Mamie Winstead died. Her last will and testament bequeathed Bethel Cemetery and the remainder of her estate to the new Hazen Historical Museum Foundation, to be preserved, maintained, and operated as an Historical Shrine.