The Civil War General from Illinois Who Gave Us Memorial Day

Gen. John A. Logan Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Only three years after the Civil War, as our nation started upon its long road toward reconciliation, rebuilding, and healing, the wife of a union general noticed a touching scene of devotion in the South.

She saw Confederate mothers, widows, and children coming together each year to place flowers and little flags at the graves of their loved ones who had fallen in battle. This general’s wife thought it was an edifying experience the whole country could emulate.

Moved by the devotion she witnessed, Mary Simmerson Logan urged her husband, Illinois General John A. “Blackjack” Logan, to look into creating what was to become Memorial Day.

So, at the urging of his wife, Logan became instrumental in creating Decoration Day, the celebration of the nation’s war dead that eventually became Memorial Day.

Today, thanks to that gracious and energetic lady, America takes time each year to remember those who served and died for our country, and it is fitting that the holiday was born of both a re-united South and North after our bloodiest war.

The man at the heart of the commemoration was a leader in his day but is now largely forgotten. General Logan was a Senator from Illinois and eventually became the candidate for Vice President on the 1884 Republican ticket, losing to Grover Cleveland and another Illinoisan, Vice President Adlai Stevenson.

Perhaps no other Federal Army general was as suited as Logan to be the one to launch Decoration Day. Certainly, Logan was a state politician, a political general who successfully transitioned to federal service and continued to hold rank after the war, and also his party’s vice presidential nominee.

What many don’t know is that “Blackjack” Logan was aiming to be a Confederate general when the war first started. Thus his sympathies for both sides make him a particularly good fit for the father of Decoration Day.

Logan was born in February of 1826 in Murphysboro, Illinois, an area rich with émigrés from Kentucky. His home was near the river bottoms once called “Little Egypt.” The area was a hotbed of Southern sympathy during the early days of the civil war.

The genus of the region’s nickname is not entirely known, but what is known is that a company of nearly 40 Illinois men from Williamson and Jackson Counties gathered together in 1861, crossed over into Kentucky, and joined the Confederate Army of Tennessee, becoming Company G of the 15th Tennessee Infantry.

Heading up that company was one Captain Hilbert A. Cunningham. He led his men across the river to the Confederacy and served in the C.S. Army for nearly two years. Co. G has the distinction of being the only company of men from a northern state to fight as a group for the Confederacy. A small number of them fought throughout the war for the rebel forces.

Captain Cunningham, though, was not one of those stalwarts, for in May of 1863 he quietly went AWOL from the Confederate army and ended up a captain on General John Logan’s staff. This sudden turn may not be so surprising, as Capt. Cunningham was Gen. Logan’s brother-in-law.

What may be more surprising is that Logan himself was initially supposed to lead Co. G across the river and into the waiting arms of the Confederacy. Rumors from his family were that the Illinois politician had accepted a Colonel’s commission from the Southerons and intended to make his military mark under the banner of the Southern Cross.

But ambition was greater than ideology, at least that early in the war, because Logan was casting a wide net for his officer’s commission and was able to cajole his way into General U.S. Grant’s favor. Logan was soon commissioned as Colonel of the 31st Illinois Infantry shortly after the Battle of Bull Run and so wore the blue for the whole of the war.

Many in the 15th Tennessee held a grudge against Logan for the rest of their lives, feeling that he betrayed them for his personal ambitions.

The following is the general order that Logan issued in 1868:

HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

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 other 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.

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