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Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia

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:

January 1 (New Year’s Day) January 19 (Lee’s Birthday) Third Monday in February (Washington’s Birthday) April 26 (Confederate Memorial Day) Last Monday in May (National Memorial Day) June 3 (Jefferson Davis’s Birthday) July 4 (Independence Day) First Monday in September (Labor Day) Second Monday in October (Columbus Day) November 11 (Veterans’ Day) Fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving December 25 (Christmas Day)

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. 1-4-1) provides:

(a) The State of Georgia shall recognize and observe as public and legal holidays: (1) All days which have been designated as of January 1, 1984, as public and legal holidays by the federal government; and (2) All other days designated and proclaimed by the Governor as public and legal holidays or as days of fasting and prayer or other religious observance. In such designation the Governor shall include at least one of the following dates: January 19, April 26, or June 3, or a suitable date in lieu thereof to commemorate the event or events now observed by such dates. (b) The Governor shall close all state offices and facilities a minimum of 12 days throughout the year and not more than 12 days in observance of the public and legal holidays and other days set forth in subsection (a) of this Code section and shall specify the days state offices and facilities shall be closed for such observances.

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:

(a) The General Assembly hereby finds and determines that tourism is a great economic resource in Georgia; and historical, heritage, and cultural inheritance are among the tourism industry’s most popular attractions. Georgia’s Confederate heritage, physical artifacts and battle sites, and historic events and persons not only attract visitors, they are potentially of even greater importance and benefit to our state’s economy. Increased development of our state’s Confederate history and heritage as part of the tourism industry will be enhanced through recognizing, celebrating, and advertising that heritage and history. (b) The month of April of each year is hereby designated as Confederate History and Heritage Month and shall be set aside to honor, observe, and celebrate the Confederate States of America, its history, those who served in its armed forces and government, and all those millions of its citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear from its founding on February 4, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, until the Confederate ship CSS Shenandoah sailed into Liverpool Harbor and surrendered to British authorities on November 6, 1865. (c) Officials and departments of state, county, and municipal governments, boards of education, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, businesses, and all citizens are encouraged to participate in programs, displays, and activities that commemorate and honor our shared history and cultural inheritance throughout each April during Confederate History and Heritage Month.

As a final note, for a number of years, the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library would mark Confederate Memorial Day by placing the original Confederate Constitution on public display. The Constitution is still displayed once a year, although the date is subject to change. The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library website will indicate the display date each year.

(To view images of portions of this historic document as well as find out it came to the University of Georgia, click here.)

Ed Jackson