Logan and the birth of Memorial Day

Published 11:06 am Thursday, May 21, 2015

More than two dozen towns across the county claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, but I like to think it started here.

In a way, it did, but it also started in Manassas, Va., Shiloh, Tenn., and the thousands of other places where the American Civil War was waged for four horrible years of death, destruction and heartache.

It’s no secret the Civil War changed the way American’s feel about death, family and sacrifices made during military service. But it also greatly changed the man behind Memorial Day — Maj. Gen. John A. “Black Jack” Logan, one of Ulysses S. Grant’s commanders during the campaign to take the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

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Before the war, Logan was a staunch Democrat living in the part of Southern Illinois commonly referred to as Egypt. He supported slavery and a pro-Southern political agenda. Yet, he couldn’t stand the thought of tearing the Union apart.

“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,” Logan wrote.

Logan, hoping to make a difference in the war, enlisted in a Michigan regiment as a private. He fought under that rank at Bull Run before returning home to raise his own troops — the 31st Illinois Volunteers.

The war instead, made a difference in him. He was gravely wounded and erroneously reported dead at Fort Donelson. While he was recuperating, he was promoted to brigadier general, despite NOT much military experience. At Vicksburg, Logan’s men occupied the area around the Shirley House and are most known for their attack at the Third Louisiana Redan. The attack was unsuccessful and the men rushed into a crater, meeting nothing but slaughter.

After Vicksburg, Logan and his men went to Georgia where they fought the grueling Atlanta Campaign. In fall of 1864, Logan returned to his home state to campaign for Abraham Lincoln. It’s obvious years of grueling battle had changed the man.

The fight continued to haunt Logan after the war, I’m sure. In 1866 he was elected again to the U.S. House of Representatives, this time as a Republican. He also was a founding member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a organization of Union veterans.

In 1868, all the death Logan had seen must have been on his mind when he wrote: “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.”

And thus, Memorial Day was born.