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In 1874, the Georgia General Assembly approved legislation adding as a new public holiday "The 26th day of April in each year – commonly known as Memorial Day." April 26 marks the anniversary of the end of the Civil War for Georgia, for it was on this day in 1865 that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's surrender to General William T. Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina became official. Johnston had been in charge of Georgia's defense, so this day marked the end of the war for Georgia.
Exactly when Georgians began commemorating April 26 as Memorial Day is unclear, but the language of the 1874 act clearly recognizes that April 26 was already being celebrated as an unofficial holiday. The day of observance may trace to the women of Columbus, Georgia, who on April 12, 1866 organized a memorial association and began a campaign to have a special day for "paying honor to those who died defending the life, honor and happiness of the Southern women." Three days later, the Atlanta Ladies' Memorial Association was organized, and on April 26, 1866, the association held a Confederate memorial observance at Oakland Cemetery.
While Florida would later join Georgia in marking April 26 as Confederate Memorial Day, other states celebrated different dates. By 1916, ten southern states marked June 3 – Jefferson Davis's birthday – as Confederate Memorial Day. Alabama celebrates the fourth Monday in April, Mississippi celebrates the last Monday in April, while North and South Carolina celebrate May 10 – the anniversary of Jefferson Davis's capture by Union troops – as Memorial Day.
Until 1984, Georgia observed as official state holidays:
The 1984 General Assembly changed state law with respect
to public and legal holidays observed in Georgia. The new law (O.C.G.A. sec.
The result of the 1984 legislation was to drop the names of all official state holidays from the Georgia Code. In one sense, this eliminated any state holiday known as Confederate Memorial Day, Robert E. Lee's Birthday, or Jefferson Davis's Birthday – or Thanksgiving or Christmas. Rather, Georgia observes whatever federal holidays were observed as of January 1, 1984. Additionally, the governor is charged with selecting January 19, April 26, or June 3 – or an alternative date more suitable – for commemorating any or all of the persons or events formerly recognized on those three dates.
In the early 2000s, the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans began a campaign to have April of each year designated Confederate History Month. When efforts failed to get the General Assembly formalize the observance through statute, supporters urged the governor to take the action through executive proclamation. The 1984 act of the General Assembly governing state holidays had required the governor to issue an executive proclamation each year designating one day to celebrate what formerly was Lee's Birthday, Jefferson Davis's Birthday, and Confederate Memorial Day. Governors Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller had selected April 26, which they designated as Confederate Memorial Day. On March 10, 2003, Governor Sonny Perdue proclaimed April 2003 as Confederate History Month and designated April 26, 2003, as Confederate Memorial Day. Thereafter, Gov. Perdue issued a similar proclamation each year during the remainder of his two terms in office.
Although there is no longer a statutory holiday known as Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia, the practice of governors since 1984 has been to proclaim April 26 as Confederate Memorial Day by executive proclamation. While one governor's proclamations are not binding on the governor that follows, the tradition of celebrating Confederate Memorial Day on April 26 seems secure.
In 2009, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation designating April of each year as Confederate History and Heritage Month. That law (O.C.G.A. sec. 1-4-20) provides:
As a final note, for a number of years, the University of Georgia's Main Library has marked Confederate Memorial Day by placing the original Confederate Constitution on public display. (To view images of portions of this historic document as well as find out it came to the University of Georgia Library, click here.) Each Confederate Memorial Day, the Confederate Constitution can be viewed from 9 am to 5 pm on the third floor of the University of Georgia's Library. However, library archivists are concerned over damage caused by handling and light; so, at some point the annual public display may be restricted or eliminated in order to preserve the rare and fragile document.
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