Lizzie Rutherford is credited as the originator of Confederate Memorial Day, which honors the memory of Confederate soldiers each year in states across the South. While the origins of Confederate Memorial Day are somewhat obscure, many historians believe that a group of women in Columbus, under the leadership of Rutherford, created the annual observance.
Elizabeth Rutherford was born on June 1, 1833, to Susan Thweatt and Adolphus Skrine Rutherford. Very little is known about her personal life. During the Civil War (1861-65) Rutherford lived in Columbus, where she was active in the Soldiers’ Aid Society, and in 1868 she married Captain Roswell Ellis, who had served in the “Columbus Guards.”
In April 1865, a week after Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, one of the final battles of the Civil War was waged near Columbus. A group of militia units, county reserves, and factory workers engaged Union forces on the Alabama heights overlooking Columbus, the Confederacy’s third largest manufacturing center (following Atlanta and Richmond, Virginia). The Confederate line was breached by General James Wilson’s Union forces, and the remaining defenders fled. At the war’s end the women of the Soldiers’ Aid Society of Columbus began to care for the graves of the fallen Confederate soldiers in Linwood Cemetery.
Early in 1866 Rutherford told a friend about a novel she had been reading (The Initials by Baroness von Tautphoeus), which mentioned the custom of caring for the graves of dead heroes. Rutherford suggested that a special day should be set aside in order to decorate Confederate soldiers’ graves and thereby honor them in perpetuity. Her suggestion was warmly received by the other women of the Columbus Soldiers’ Aid Society, and they transformed their group into the Ladies’ Memorial Association.
In March 1866 the new group wrote to Soldiers’ Aid Societies throughout the South to encourage them to unite in decorating soldiers’ graves on April 26, the date of General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Johnston, who had been charged with Georgia’s defense, surrendered the remaining major Confederate field army to Union general William T. Sherman in North Carolina. The women wrote, “We can keep alive the memory of debt we owe [the fallen soldiers] by dedicating at least one day in each year, by embellishing their humble graves with flowers. Therefore we beg the assistance of the press and the ladies throughout the South to help us in the effort to set apart a certain day to be observed.” This call was answered again and again across the South, as reflected in a hymn by Nella L. Sweet published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping,” which was dedicated “To the Ladies of the South Who Are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
Rutherford died on March 31, 1873, and was buried, appropriately enough, in Linwood Cemetery, with the soldiers she had sought to memorialize. Her marker, erected by the Lizzie Rutherford Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy (established in 1898), calls her “Soldiers’ Friend” and observes that she was the person who suggested Confederate Memorial Day.
In 1874, the year after her death, the Georgia General Assembly officially added a public holiday, “The 26th day of April in each year—commonly known as Memorial Day.” By the end of the century many southern communities were observing the event, and the formation of the Confederated Southern Memorial Association in Louisville, Kentucky, in May 1900 led to the widespread adoption of Confederate Memorial Day.