Decoration Day

As we pass by cemeteries in Rhea County and other areas around Tennessee, we can see flowers and flags on graves of those buried in these places. This is because of a tradition we call “Decoration Day,” which is usually celebrated in May and June, and has its beginnings during the War Between the States.

The Battle of Shiloh was fought during April of 1862 in Hardin County, Tennessee, along the Mississippi state line. This battle was one in which more than thirty five hundred troops were killed and another sixteen thousand wounded in the two days of fighting. Most of the wounded were taken to the city of Columbus, Mississippi, which was approximately eighty miles from the area of Shiloh Church. Many of those who died during or after the trip to Columbus (by train or wagon), were buried in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus. (Research tells us that there was no such thing as embalming in those days; therefore, many of the dead were placed in barrels of whiskey to preserve the bodies just long enough to get them to their families or a grave.) Later that month, the ladies of Columbus visited Friendship Cemetery and not only decorated the graves of the soldiers killed at Shiloh, but also those who died as a result of their injuries in battle there. These women then returned the next year to decorate the Confederate graves, and could not help noticing that the graves of the Union soldiers (also killed at Shiloh), were not decorated. So, these ladies decided to put flowers not only on the graves of the Confederate soldiers, but on those of their former enemies as well.

Consequently, from that act of kindness by the women of Columbus, a new tradition was begun. (This just shows us the power of compassionate women!) This day is usually celebrated on a Sunday in most cemeteries, and is to honor the dead. Some groups place American flags on the graves of veterans, have dinner on the grounds, preaching, singing, give money for upkeep of the cemeteries, put flowers on graves and have other types of celebrations. Later, Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day, which is now celebrated on the last Monday in May. (However, that is another story.) Many cemeteries still observe Decoration Day in some way, and a listing of those cemeteries with dates has been published in the Herald News, so that anyone wanting to know about those events can find out.

Sunday, May 5 is Decoration Day at Buttram Cemetery, and this will be an opportunity for families to visit the graves of their loved ones there. We all need to acknowledge our heritage with monetary gifts to cemeteries where our deceased are buried. The goal of Buttram Cemetery’s Perpetual Care Trust is to have enough funds in an interest-bearing account so the interest will pay for the upkeep of the cemetery, and families will not have to bear this expense themselves. A time will come when those who try to maintain their plots will be gone, and it would be good to know that this will be taken care of. Contributions may be made at Simply Bank, which was previously First Bank.

As we visit our departed ones during Decoration Day this year, let us remember that this tradition of remembering the deceased might not have occurred had it not been for a bloody battle at Shiloh during the War Between The States and an act of kindness by a group of Southern women who wanted all soldiers to be remembered. As your Rhea County Historian, I hope you will learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

Pat Guffey can be reached at