John A. Logan and the Founding of Memorial Day
John J. Dunphy
The city of Alton held its first Memorial Day parade in 1868, the very year that the holiday was founded. It is one of the oldest — perhaps even the oldest — continuously-held Memorial Day parade in the entire United States. While River Bend residents justly take pride in this distinction, surprisingly few are aware that the person most responsible for creating and popularizing this holiday was John A. Logan, a Civil War hero from southern Illinois who played a pivotal role in keeping that region loyal to the Union.
Born in a log home on what is now South Seventeenth Street in Murphysboro, Illinois, Logan enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1847 during the war with Mexico. He was mustered out when the conflict ended a year later.
Logan began reading law in 1849 and later that year was elected Jackson County Clerk as a Democrat. He shortly resigned to earn a law degree at Louisville University but re-entered politics in 1851 with his election as prosecuting attorney for the third judicial district. A year later he won a seat in the Illinois General Assembly.
Southern Illinois elected Logan to Congress in 1858, and he quickly associated himself with the pro-South faction in Washington. As secession became imminent with Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Logan worked feverishly to hold the Union together by accommodating the South.
The Confederacy’s attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, galvanized Dixie sympathizers in southern Illinois, a region known then and now as “Egypt.” A public meeting in Pope County openly endorsed secession, while a resolution adopted at a Marion rally demanded that Illinois be divided and citizens of Egypt align themselves with the Confederacy. Illinois Governor Richard Yates was warned that two-thirds of Franklin County residents supported the South and lacked only a military leader.
By the summer of 1861, Logan had abandoned any hope of holding the nation together through compromise and declared his support for the Union. He accompanied the Federal army at the Battle of Bull Run as a civilian but grabbed a fallen rifle and participated in the conflict.
In August 1861, Lincoln authorized Logan to command a regiment. He returned to Illinois and was commissioned a colonel.
Logan admonished a crowd in the Marion town square on August 19 that the time had come for them to choose whether to support the Union. He asked for volunteers to fight under his command.
The wily soldier had arranged for a veteran who had served with him during the Mexican campaign to play a patriotic tune on his fife at the speech’s conclusion. This cued several of Logan’s friends to step forward and volunteer, a bit of pump-priming that soon produced enough volunteers to form a company.
Logan had his regiment completely filled by mid-September — and the overwhelming majority of its men hailed from southern Illinois. Secession sentiment waned, and Egypt was soon providing more volunteers for the Union than any other region in the state.
Logan’s courage and success on the battlefield brought promotions that raised him to the rank of major general. His men idolized him, cheering whenever he galloped along the lines and even leaning forward to touch his stallion.
Southern and northern women began placing flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers during the war. Logan participated in our state’s first veterans memorial service, which was held on April 29, 1866 at Woodlawn Cemetery in Carbondale.
In 1868, Logan’s wife, Mary Logan, visited several Virginia battlefields and noticed that Confederate graves were adorned with flowers. She mentioned this to her husband.
On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as National Commander of the Union veterans’ organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Logan issued General Order №11. It stated that “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.” Logan praised the North’s fallen warriors as those “who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes.”
These Union soldiers, Logan continued, “were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” He commanded GAR members “to guard their graves with sacred vigilance.”
Since this day was devoted to “decorating” graves, it was initially known as Decoration Day. Logan’s prestige lent new impetus to this fledgling tradition and by 1890 — four years after his death — Decoration Day was a legal holiday in all the northern states. After World War I, this holiday became known as Memorial Day and honored slain American military personnel from all wars.
Some Americans, particularly in the Midwest, continued to refer to this holiday as Decoration Day. It was a tradition in the Heartland to decorate the graves of all relatives, rather than just those of the war dead. Some families packed picnic lunches and dined in the cemetery after decorating relatives’ graves. This custom continues in a few rural communities to this day, where one can see adults chatting while seated on the ground around a picnic tablecloth as their children play among the tombstones.
“Logan’s Order Mandating Memorial Day;” John A. Logan College web site, http://www.jal.cc.il.us/loganmemorial.html ;accessed 10/29/08 at 9:28 pm.
Cottingham, Carl D. Life and Times of General John A. Logan. Carbondale: Kestral Press, 1989.
Dawson, George Francis. The Life and Services of General John A. Logan as Soldier and Statesman. Chicago and New York: Belford, Clarke Company, 1887.
Dunphy, John J. “Illinoisan led charge for a national day of remembrance;” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 2004.
Feldstein, Mary Jo. “Alton’s parade has honored war veterans since 1868;” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 27, 2008.
Jones, James P. “Black Jack:” John A. Logan and Southern Illinois in the Civil War. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1967.
— . John A. Logan: Stalwart Republican. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1982.
- John J. Dunphy’s latest book is “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.