General Black Jack Logan: Founder of Memorial Day

General Black Jack Logan: Founder of Memorial Day

The story of John A. Logan, the founder of Decoration Day, later to be known as Memorial Day, is the fascinating tale of a man who was once a racist Democrat and later became one of the favorite generals of Ulysses S. Grant, an ardent Republican. 

General Logan, who later became a senator from Illinois and was the Republican vice-presidential nominee on the ticket with James Blaine in 1884, was a member of the House of Representatives in the Legislature of Illinois in 1853.

Logan originally introduced a bill prohibiting “the immigration of free persons of color to the State of Illinois, or the setting free of slaves within the limits thereof.” It was passed in 1855, and the bill, with its supplementary enactments, became known as “The Black Laws.” 

Elected as a Democratic Congressman in 1858 and 1860, during his second term Logan denounced “Black Republicans and Know-Nothings.” He later blamed radical abolitionists for John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in front of Congress:

Every fugitive slave that has been arrested in Illinois, or in any of the western States – and I call Illinois a western State, for I [am] ashamed longer to call it a northern State – has been made by Democrats. In Illinois the Democrats have all that work to do. You call it the dirty work of the Democratic Party to catch fugitive slaves for the southern people. We are willing to perform that dirty work. I do not consider it disgraceful to perform any work, dirty or not dirty, which is in accordance with the laws of the land and the Constitution of the country.

Yet this same man respected the Union and despised extremists on both sides. He said to those Southerners wanting to secede, “The election of Mr. Lincoln, deplorable as it may be, affords no justification or excuse for overthrowing the republic… We cannot stand silently by while the joint action of extremists are dragging us to ruin.”

At the start of the Civil War, Logan fought at Bull Run in a Michigan regiment, then resigned his congressional seat to become colonel of the 31st Illinois Volunteers. He would later serving under General Grant at the Battle of Belmont (where his horse was killed under him), was wounded at Fort Donelson, and then promoted to brigadier-general in March, 1862. 

When Grant attacked Vicksburg, Logan was the commander of XVII Corps, the first to enter the city; when Vicksburg fell, he became the military governor. 

Logan took over from General Sherman when Sherman left XV Corps and initially commanded the Army of the Tennessee at the battle of Atlanta in 1864. By the end of the war, Logan had become a radical Republican and was elected as a GOP congressman 1867. He would serve in the House until 1871, and then served as a Senator from 1871 until 1877 and again from 1879 to 1886. 

While General Logan, who was known as Black Jack, was in Congress in 1868, he was still the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic from 1868, (a position he held until 1871); on May 5, 1868, he sponsored General Order #11, which designated May 30, 1868, as a day of remembrance:

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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of 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 cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the 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 fond 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 a free and undivided republic.

If our eyes grow dull, 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 to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; 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 a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that 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 lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of

JOHN A. LOGAN, Commander-in-Chief

N.P. CHIPMAN, Adjutant General

Official: WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

Logan is one of three men mentioned in the Illinois State Song, along with Grant and Abraham Lincoln.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense