Remembering the Founder of Memorial Day

Sue Vaughan is buried in Arlington's Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Barbara Ball Savage at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Photo by Michael Ventura.

Some celebrate the last Monday in May with a backyard barbecue or a trip to the beach. Barbara Ball Savage observes it by visiting the grave of the holiday’s alleged founder, Sue Landon Vaughan (maiden name Adams), who is buried in Arlington’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. “My mother put flowers on her grave every Memorial Day…until she couldn’t do it anymore,” says Savage, now 90. “I just kept doing it.”

Historical records show that Susan Hutchinson Adams was born Oct. 12, 1835 (although her grave says 1837), on her father’s estate in east Missouri. When the Civil War broke out, her family was divided. Her father—a judge who had slaves but freed them—and two of her brothers sided with the Union, while Sue joined another brother and signed on with the Confederacy as an army nurse, according to a 1961 book written by her great-nephew. Sue later became a rebel spy and a blockade runner, smuggling medical supplies across Union lines to Confederate hospitals.

As a spy, Adams is said to have posed as a Presbyterian missionary—a role that allowed her to cross into enemy territory and take notes on military positioning. In one instance, the book recounts how her cover was nearly blown until she produced a picture of one of her Union brothers, suggesting her allegiances lay with the North.

April 25, 1865, was a consequential day for both sides. Thousands packed the streets of New York City to witness the funeral procession of President Lincoln as news of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was still making its way to points south. Upon hearing that the “war of rebellion” was ending in defeat, Adams organized a group of women to meet at Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi, to honor “our fallen braves.”

The next morning at dawn, “the lady with the roses” reportedly led a “Decoration Day” procession through the cemetery, tossing pink flowers onto the graves of Confederate soldiers. Some accounts suggest the women also said prayers and left flowers on the graves of four Union soldiers as they passed by. “[Adams] was not a so-called bipartisan person,” Arlington historian Bob Patton clarifies. “It was an act of compassion.”

Soon, similar acts of remembrance began to pop up in other cities. On May 30, 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic organized the first large-scale Decoration Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery to honor those “who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Following the war, Adams moved to Northern California and married Judge Cornelius Vaughan. (Patton says it’s unclear when or why her middle name changed from Hutchinson to Landon.) After Judge Vaughan’s death, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake left her literally and figuratively shaken. She moved back East to join her younger sister, Sallie Adams, in Arlington.

That’s where she met Anna Marie Shreve, mother of Barbara Ball Savage (and wife of Virginia state senator Frank Ball), who was then a young schoolteacher. They were neighbors on Wilson Boulevard.

Sue Vaughan died in 1911 and was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Shreve began leaving flowers on her grave. “It was an act of friendship,” Savage says of her mother’s adopted ritual. “She loved and admired her.”

In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a federal holiday by an act of Congress.

With her daughters’ help, Savage plans to decorate Vaughan’s final resting place once more this year.


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