To Honor the Fallen

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. The name came from the ancient practice of decorating the graves of deceased soldiers. The holiday was established in the United States after the Civil War.

Several communities honored their war dead in the years after the Civil War. A group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, inspired a poem when they decorated both Confederate and Union graves. The story is on the Veterans Administration website:

Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.

The poem is “The Blue and the Gray” by Francis Miles Finch, a lawyer who later became a judge of the New York Court of Appeals. The poem includes the stanza:

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.

Composer John Purifoy used the words of Finch, among others, when he wrote “Chronicles of Blue and Gray” for the Knoxville Choral Society. Purifoy’s masterpiece had its world premiere at the Tennessee Theatre on November 10, 2012. The piece will be sung again on June 8 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

My wife is one of many members of the Knoxville Choral Society who will travel to New York to sing in the June 8 concert. Their voices will be joined with the voices of members of eight other choirs. One of the participating groups is the Columbus Choral Society, which is from the same Mississippi town as the women who inspired Finch’s poem in 1866.

I interviewed John Purifoy in 2012 about “Chronicles of Blue and Gray” and about one of his earlier compositions. Here is the link to that interview:

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