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Monday, April 28, 2014 - 9:16am

Confederate Memorial Day: The State Holiday You Didn't Know Existed

Monday, April 28 is Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia. A lot of people don’t even know the state holiday exists. Before coming to work at GPB, “On The Story” writer Lisa Clark was one of them.

In fact, she says she was “nonplussed” when she found out Confederate Memorial Day was an actual holiday. Last week, she set out to find out the origin of Confederate Memorial Day, and why people celebrate it the first place.

Here’s her story below.

As a recent arrival to the world of state employment, I was nonplussed when I found out that today is an official paid state holiday- Confederate Memorial Day. Of course all of us at On The Story are working today because news never takes a day off.

But the reason for this holiday surprised me.

Confederate Memorial Day is a holiday that is still observed in 11 Southern states in some way, shape, or form.

From Confederate Memorial Day

Children at the Confederate Memorial Day commemoration in Macon, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Adam Ragusea)

The history nerd in me discovered that it was the brainchild of one Lizzie Rutherford from Columbus, Georgia.

In 1866, Rutherford learned of the European custom of decorating the gravestones of war heroes.

She proposed a similar commemoration to her fellow members of the Columbus Soldiers' Aid Society. She suggested the date of April 26, the day that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had officially surrendered to Union General William Sherman a year earlier.

Thus, Confederate Memorial Day, also called "Decoration Day", was born.

That year, the graves at the now historic Linwood Cemetery in Columbus became the first place it was observed.

But the ladies in the Aid Society made sure to spread the news throughout the bloodied and bereaved South, and it caught on in a big way.

To this day, Confederate Memorial day isn't merely a paid day off for state workers in Georgia and elsewhere. For many, it's an occasion to re–enact and remember what happened during the Civil War, as some Macon residents did over the weekend.

From Confederate Memorial Day

Macon residents hold a weekend celebration to commemorate Confederate Memorial Day. (Photo Credit: Adam Ragusea)

Lizzie Rutherford, who'd become Lizzie Rutherford Ellis, died in 1873 and was buried at Linwood Cemetery among the soldiers she'd been so inspired to honor. Her tombstone reads "Soldiers' Friend." The following year, the Georgia General Assembly officially added Confederate Memorial Day as a public holiday. By the end of the century, many Southern communities had adopted the tradition.

Eventually, another Memorial Day, the one the entire U.S. celebrates in May, was added to the federal calendar. But Confederate Memorial Day remains a separate and distinct state holiday.

Former Congressman Buddy Darden vividly recalls marking both during his middle Georgia boyhood.

“We'd have Confederate Memorial Day,” said Darden. “And then Yankee Memorial Day.”

Are you as surprised as I was to learn Confederate Memorial Day remains an official state holiday in Georgia and other Southern states?

In fact, Georgia statute law requires that at least one of three significant Confederate dates must be observed as a state holiday each year. The governor may choose from Confederate Memorial Day, the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and/or Jefferson Davis' birthday, the president of the Confederate States of America.

Some see this custom as a harmless fading vestige of the old South, while others wonder why Confederate Memorial Day is still observed separately from Memorial Day in May. And some flatly disapprove of any such state observance because of what the Confederate era represents to them now.