We’re planning to spend some of the Memorial Day weekend in my wife’s native Southern Illinois. It’s possible we may, at some point, cruise through nearby Murphysboro, IL, and even past John A. Logan College.
And that’s fitting, because it was Logan, a Civil War general, congressman, U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate, who signed the general order of the Grand Army of the Republic that basically created Memorial Day:
Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868
I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.
By command of:
JOHN A. LOGAN,
N. P. CHIPMAN,
The John A. Logan Museum in Muphysboro, his hometown, digs a little deeper into the story:
Almost two dozen communities claim the honor of having observed the first Memorial Day. An encounter in a cemetery underlies each of their stories. Thus began the story of John A. Logan and Carbondale, Illinois’ first observance of Memorial Day.
On April 16, 1866 Civil War veterans sitting on the steps of Crab Orchard Christian Church just west of Carbondale, Illinois waited for their pastor. Glancing toward Hiller Cemetery they saw the widow and children of a fallen comrade placing flowers on his unmarked grave. After the family departed, the men gathered wild flowers and decorated the graves of the other veterans buried there. They shared their belief with veterans in Carbondale that a larger, more organized event to honor their fallen comrades was needed. Together they decided to hold a community-wide Memorial Day observance at Carbondale’s Woodlawn Cemetery on April 29, 1866.
On that day 212 veterans gathered at the Cemetery. Among them was Major General John A. Logan who had been asked to give the keynote address. There Logan told his audience that, “Every man’s life belongs to his country, and no man has a right to refuse when his country calls for it.” The events of the day were recorded by James Green, the sextant of Woodlawn Cemetery and Logan’s first cousin.
Two years later, in March 1868, Mary Logan visited the battlefields around Petersburg, Virginia. While there she visited Blandford Cemetery where she saw wilted flowers and small tattered flags decorating the graves of fallen Confederate veterans. When Mary returned to Washington told John about what she had seen. She suggested the North should also honor its fallen soldiers in a similar manner.
Perhaps Mary’s story reminded Logan of Carbondale’s Memorial Day. On May 5, 1868, Logan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11. This order established May 30 as the annual date “for the purpose of strewing flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of Comrades who died in the defense of their country.” First called Decoration Day it later became Memorial Day.
Logan did not conceive the idea of Memorial Day, but when he issued General Order No. 11 he did make it a national holiday. Logan believed that this “was the proudest act” of his life. And it remains his greatest legacy. Today bronze markers located from the Atlantic to the Pacific honor Logan and his Memorial Day Order.
Quite a legacy. There’s a lot of Logan stuff in Southern Illinois, so I’ve always wondered about his story. So I did just a little digging.
Logan was a pretty interesting character in the nation’s history. It’s sort of surprising that he’s not better known. He was serving in the U.S. House as a Democrat when the Civil War broke out, and with Southern Illinois’ loyalties in question, (the region was and still is remarkably southern in character for being part of Illinois) it wasn’t all that clear which side Logan would support.
Apparently, he just sort of joined up as an “unattached volunteer” with a Michigan unit at Bull Run and decided to go full Union. He resigned from Congress, was commissioned as a colonel and went back to his Illinois stomping grounds to recruit a regiment. As a recruiter and politician, Logan had skills.
Logan sometimes gets lumped in with other “political generals” who served in the war, guys who became officers with little or no military experience. Many turned out to be lousy or worse. But Logan was an exception:
In addition to his political efforts, Logan contributed militarily. He developed into one of the finest combat leaders of the war, became an effective field officer, and rose to become one of Sherman’s most experienced corps commanders. He had inherent leadership skills and natural bravery. In some ways, his tactical record was unsurpassed, even among West Pointers, as he never tasted defeat or was tainted with charges of incompetence. In his first action at Belmont, Logan led the 31st Illinois into the enemy camp and kept it together while other units collapsed after the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. He was wounded at Fort Donelson while halting a Confederate attack, for which he was promoted to brigadier general. He commanded a brigade and then a division under Grant during the Vicksburg campaign. Eventually, he commanded a corps under Sherman during the Atlanta campaign. Taking over upon the death of James McPherson, Logan shattered Hood’s attack and drove the Confederates back with great loss. Sherman credited him with winning the day. Indeed, Logan was repeatedly credited by Grant and Sherman for his military capabilities.
He came back to Illinois after the war and won a seat in Congress, this time as a radical Republican, before winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. He was James G. Blaine’s running mate in 1884, but they lost a fairly close race to Grover Cleveland. Logan died in 1886.
There are quite a few things named after him, including Logan Circle in Washington. He’s got a statue in Grant Park in Chicago (photo above). And he’s one of only three people mentioned in Illinois’ state song, along with Lincoln and Grant. Not bad.
Hope you all have a great weekend.
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