In 1868, John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11 directing its members to decorate the graves of Union veterans on May 30, 1868.
This act consolidated the North’s established, independent Memorial Day [then known as Decoration Day] observations into a national holiday.
Who is John A. Logan? Biographer Gary Ecelbarger believes he is perhaps “the most noteworthy 19th-century American to escape notice in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
John A. Logan, born in 1826 in Murphysboro, Ill., was a Democrat and, in 1861, a congressman from Egypt, as Southern Illinois was called. He despised Lincoln and abolitionists.
Col. Logan joined the Union Army not to free the slaves, but to save the Union. By 1864, Maj. Gen. Logan supported emancipation and campaigned for Lincoln’s second term. In 1884, Sen. Logan’s support of equality for America’s former slaves gained the support of Frederick Douglas in a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
No matter how high Logan rose in rank, his soldiers were his “boys” and his responsibility. His concern meant, as Lt. John P. Reese, Company E, 81st Illinois Infantry, wrote, “[Logan was] the favorite with all of the troops.” Logan camped near the front, led his troops into battle, and, like many of his men, almost died from wounds and disease.
Logan did not establish Memorial Day for political advantage (as critics claimed) but because he knew firsthand what “his boys” had suffered. He established Memorial Day from the fear their sacrifices would soon be forgotten.
Logan believed the national holiday “was the proudest act” of his life. Bishop John P. Newman agreed. In his eulogy for Logan, he stated, “the spirits of 350,000 ... soldiers [will] gather around ... Logan, and thank him that ... their graves are not forgotten.”
Logan’s Memorial Day has expanded to include America’s dead from all wars and, for many, any deceased family members and is now a three-day weekend observed on the last Monday in May. Logan would accept many of these changes.
He would have no problem honoring not just Civil War but all of America’s soldiers. He would also consent to including all of America’s dead (if the focus remained on veterans), for they, too, contributed to our nation’s story.
Logan, however, would despise the concept of a three-day weekend as a distraction. For Logan, Memorial Day was intended to show that “we have not forgotten ... the cost of [a free nation],” not to picnic.
Many Americans today agree with Logan and want Memorial Day back on May 30. Human nature being what it is (by the 1880s, the GAR was already complaining about picnics on Memorial Day), however, this goal is perhaps impossible.
This said, I hope that, in between opening pools, cooking brats, or taking advantage of those great sales, America’s citizens take the time to attend a Memorial Day program, decorate graves, and give some thought to the sacrifices of our veterans. After all, they are the people who gave us the opportunity to have this 3-day holiday to enjoy.
P. Michael Jones is executive director of the Gen. John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro.
About the Logan Museum
The Gen. John A. Logan Museum is at 1613 Edith St., Murphysboro. The museum follows the life of Gen. Logan (1826-1886) and the history of Southern Illinois in Logan’s time.
Current special exhibit: “Caught in the Sweep of History: Egypt in the Civil War – The Second Year.”
Museum hours: June-August, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 1-4 p.m. Sunday; September-May, 1-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Open by special arrangement and for group tours. Closed holidays, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Contact points: The museum has a presence on YouTube and a Facebook page. Phone: (618) 684-3455; Website: www.loganmuseum.org