"Cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead" ~Black Jack Logan, 1868

John A. Logan (R) Murphysboro

On the last Monday in May, a grateful nation pauses to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we hold dear. The annual commemoration we now know as Memorial Day has its roots here in Illinois, and it came about because of Union General turned Illinois Congressman John A. Logan (R-Murphysboro).

First elected as a Democrat, Logan joined Lincoln and the Union and became a Republican during the Civil War. Logan held local office in Jackson County, as well as two terms in the Illinois House. In 1858 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was re-elected in 1860. In July 1861, Congressman Logan joined a parade of Washington’s elite in following the Union Army into Virginia to watch what was expected to be the decisive battle of the Civil War. The fight is remembered by history as First Bull Run (or First Manassas).

When the tide of battle turned against the Union Army, and the panicked spectators began to flee, Logan stood his ground. Amidst the chaos, Logan seized a musket from a fleeing Union soldier and clad in formal suit and top hat, engaged the advancing Confederates. In fighting for the Union that day, Logan found his calling.

Logan was to become a fiery speaker for the cause of the Union. His district, populated with residents who had emigrated from the southeastern U.S., and who still had families there, was much more ambivalent. In August 1861, Congressman Logan returned to his district and gave an impassioned speech at Marion which historians credit with keeping that wavering region loyal to the Union.

In April 1862, he resigned from Congress and joined the Union Army. Starting out as Colonel of the 31st Illinois, Logan was commissioned a Brigadier General of volunteers, and later promoted to Major General by another famed Illinoisan, General Ulysses S. Grant. Wounded at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, Logan returned to action during the Vicksburg and Atlanta campaigns. Gallantly riding his horse in harm’s way, Logan was nicknamed Black Jack by his men because of his long black hair and flowing moustache.

At the conclusion of the war, General William Tecumseh Sherman gave Logan the honor of leading the western army in the grand review along Pennsylvania Avenue. Logan was then named Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the preeminent Union veterans’ organization, where he made his most lasting peacetime contribution to American history.

Seeing the need for continued remembrance of those who had fallen in the war, Logan issued his General Order Number 11: “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 spoke of, “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 death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.”

Logan called the establishment of “Decoration Day” the proudest achievement of his life.
Logan returned to Congress following the Civil War, joining the party of Lincoln and running as a Republican in 1866. He served in the U.S. House for four years, a fierce advocate for the rights of veterans. In 1870 he was elected to the Senate, where he served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. Logan was nominated for Vice President on the unsuccessful Republican ticket in 1884.

After the war, some of Logan’s soldiers moved west and settled communities which they named for their former commander. Logan counties in Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and other western states are named for John A. Logan. Ironically, Logan County, Illinois, is not named for the General, but for his father, a former state legislator and friend of Abraham Lincoln.

John A. Logan’s legacy, Decoration Day, became Memorial Day after World War I. In 1971 it was recognized by Congress as a federal holiday to be marked on the last Monday in May. In 1901, President McKinley presided over the dedication of the John A. Logan Memorial on the Mall in Washington.

John A. Logan died in Washington in 1886. His body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He was buried at the National Cemetery at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington DC alongside some of the soldiers whose devotion and sacrifice he had worked so hard to recognize.