One of the first Ladies’ Memorial Associations appears to have organized in, Virginia. Mary Dunbar Williams, a resident of the town, was horrified by the lack of proper burials for the Confederate soldiers who had defended her town. In May 1865 she visited her sister-in-law, Eleanor Williams Boyd, to whom she recounted a story of a farmer who had plowed up the bodies of two Confederate soldiers while preparing his field for corn. Williams and Boyd called a meeting of all the town’s women. At this gathering, several of the women who had volunteered in the hospitals during the war agreed to organize a memorial society, the purpose of which was to gather all the dead within a radius of fifteen miles of the town and inter them in one graveyard. Once this had been completed, they hoped to establish an annual tradition of placing flowers and evergreens on these graves.
By the autumn of 1868, more than twenty associations had organized in Virginia, including those at Appomattox Court House, Bristol,, , (Washington County), Fairfax Court House, Fredericksburg, King George County, Gordonsville (Piedmont), Leesburg, , Loudoun Park, , Manassas and Bull Run, New Market, Orange Court House, , (three different associations), Spotsylvania, , Warrenton, and Winchester. With a conservative estimate of fifty members per association, more than 1,150 of Virginia’s elite and middle-class women joined the ranks of the memorial associations in the years immediately after the war. Virginia was not the only southern state in which the associations organized. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama also witnessed a proliferation of such groups in the war’s aftermath; all told, between seventy and one hundred such associations were established throughout the South.
While the Winchester Ladies’ Memorial Association was busy creating a cemetery for Confederate soldiers during the summer and autumn of 1865, Union burial crews had begun the process of recovering the remains of their own soldiers in shallow or mass graves on the southern battlefields. This massive reinterment project would send crews across the South to scout for grave sites and organize cemeteries for Union soldiers similar to those that had been created during the war such as atand Arlington. By 1870, 300,000 Union soldiers had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, at least 17 of which were in Virginia.
The Union practice of ignoring the Confederate dead during reburial efforts incited increased activity by the Ladies’ Memorial Associations in the spring of 1866. The seven associations of Richmond, Lynchburg, Winchester, Petersburg, and Fredericksburg alone reinterred more than 72,520 remains, nearly 28 percent of the South’s total war dead.
Members of the associations believed that their cemeteries would serve as physical reminders of the Confederate cause for future generations. Hollywood Memorial Association of Richmond believed that its cemetery would become the “Mecca” of the South, annually attracting “Pilgrim widows and Orphans, Fathers and Mothers, Brothers and Sisters, relatives and friends” from every southern state. “Let our children grow up, to foster it—making this sacred Spot, more and more attractive, each succeeding year, worthy of being the deposit of our hearts’ love, honour and gratitude!”
The Ladies’ Memorial Association’s most visible and popular activity was the annual celebration of Memorial or Decoration Days. White southerners celebrated these days in the spring as a sign of renewal and rebirth, but each community chose its own symbolic date on which to gather. For example, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, and Richmond’s Oakwood association all selected May 10, the anniversary of Confederate general‘s death following the in May 1863. The women of Hollywood agreed on May 31, the anniversary of the day Richmonders first heard the cannons of war during the (1862). Winchester selected June 6, the day Confederate general was killed in 1862 near .
Regardless of the date, Memorial Days tended to follow similar patterns. The women of the associations gathered on the days preceding the event to make evergreen and floral arrangements and requested that young men or boys perform any physical labor needed at the cemeteries such as remounding. On Memorial Day, hundreds and even thousands of citizens gathered at some central location in town, perhaps a church or town hall, and then marched in procession to the cemetery where the women and children decorated the graves with flowers and evergreens. Subsequently, orators chosen by the memorial associations delivered prayers and evocative speeches. Even though women selected men to serve as the featured guests and speakers, everyone understood that the Ladies ran the show—they selected the date, chose the orators, invited groups to participate in the procession, and even picked the musical selections.
The Ladies were also responsible for some of the first monuments to the Confederacy. In 1869, the Hollywood association dedicated a ninety-foot pyramidal structure in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery made of large blocks cut from James River granite. Other Virginia Ladies’ Memorial Associations likewise initiated plans for Confederate monuments in the 1860s and early in the 1870s. Perhaps the most famous monument associated with the associations is the Lee Monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue completed in 1890. In the 1890s, the Ladies began to move on to other projects such as restoring the White House of the Confederacy and transforming Petersburg’s Blandford Church into a Confederate shrine replete with Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Confederated Southern Memorial Association
Unlike the, an outgrowth of the Ladies’ Memorial Associations that organized in 1894, the Ladies had always remained autonomous organizations. But in 1900, the Southern Memorial Association of Fayetteville, Arkansas, issued a call for all Ladies’ Memorial Associations to unite in one body called the Confederated Southern Memorial Association. In keeping with the Ladies’ objectives since the 1860s, the Confederated Southern Memorial Association sought to collect relics and preserve the history of the Confederacy, instill in the minds of children “a proper veneration for the spirit and glory that animated” the South’s soldiers, and continue to direct Memorial Day services. But in the spirit of a confederation, this new memorial association declared that no individual work of any individual Ladies’ Association would be interfered with by the confederated group and no joining Ladies’ Association would be required to assume any new work except on a voluntary basis. The Confederated Southern Memorial Association would gather each year at an annual meeting that coincided with the annual meeting of the United Confederate Veterans.
Despite organizing the Confederated Southern Memorial Association, membership in the Ladies’ Associations declined steadily early in the twentieth century as the Ladies were eclipsed by the more popular United Daughters of the Confederacy. Today there are only two known associations in Virginia, in Fredericksburg and Petersburg. These Ladies remain dedicated to many of the same projects and goals as their predecessors of the last century: maintaining cemeteries, providing information to soldiers’ descendants regarding grave locations, and sponsoring Memorial Day celebrations. Still other Ladies’ Memorial Associations have transformed their organizations since the early 1900s. In Lynchburg, a small but devoted group of women persisted as the caretakers of the Old City Cemetery until 2005 when the group was reorganized as the Southern Memorial Association. Although the Hollywood association ceased to exist sometime in the mid-twentieth century, its auxiliary group, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, continues to operate the.