“Guard their graves with sacred vigilance”

As the defeated mass of soldiers in blue fell back in disarray, Congressman John A. Logan had seen enough.

Like many of the “great men of Washington,” the Illinois congressman had journeyed a few miles west of the nation’s capital city on a warm Sunday in July 1861 to watch what many had expected to be the one and only major battle of the American Civil War. The inexperienced U.S. Army had marched into Virginia to confront a ragtag group of rebels who were dug in along a creek called Bull Run. Many spectators expected an entertaining clash which would result in the suppression of the rebellion in a single afternoon.

They could not have been more wrong.

The battle began with a Union advance which was soon stopped and then reversed. With the unexpected setback, the blue-clad troops fell apart, dropping weapons and fleeing the battlefield. Soon the civilians were caught up in the panic, their carriages mixing with retreating soldiers in a flight which was soon called “the great skedaddle.”

One civilian who was not amongst the panicked mob was Congressman Logan. Embarrassed by the disastrous showing the soldiers of the Republic were putting up in front of him, Logan, himself a veteran of the war with Mexico, charged forward while others fled backward. Seizing a dropped musket, the Congressman – still clad in his dress suit and silk top hat – moved toward the advancing Confederates, trying to rally soldiers of a Michigan regiment back into the line. It did not work, but it did make an impression on many who witnessed Logan’s battlefield heroics.

John A. Logan was born in Jackson County, Illinois, in February 1826. His father was a doctor of such prominence in early Illinois that a county in the central part of the state is named for him. The younger Logan became a prosecutor and was a supporter of Senator Stephen Douglas. He was elected Jackson County Clerk and to the Illinois General Assembly as a Douglas Democrat. He joined his political hero in Washington in 1859 when he took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

John A. Logan's name listed among the 18th General Assembly members "convened in extra session, February 9, 1854" (Logan's birthday)

Logan was re-elected in 1860 and served in Congress through the secession crisis. It was in this role that he happened to be among the spectators at Bull Run. Having seen the rebellion with his own eyes, Logan was called home on urgent business after a small group of transplanted Kentuckians now living in Marion had gotten together and called for the surrounding area to secede from Illinois and join the Confederacy.

Logan would have none of it.

He returned to his congressional district and gave a fiery two-hour speech on the Marion square denouncing secession and treason, and calling upon all who could hear him to join in the effort to save the Union.

“The very crowd was enough to alarm one,” wrote Logan’s wife, Mary. “They were so excited seemingly on the verge of violent demonstration….He came to me and begged me on no account to go into the street. He felt that there might be trouble and assured me that he would be unnerved if he thought I was in the crowd, should mob violence seize the half-crazed people.”

“The time has come when a man must be for or against his country, not for or against his state,” Logan said. “I for one shall stand or fall for this Union and shall this day enroll for the war. I want as many of you as will come with me.”

As two of Logan’s fellow veterans began playing a fife and drum, the Congressman led 158 local men to register for the Union Army. He resigned from Congress a short time later.

Those who followed Logan into the Army joined with other local men in forming the 31st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, composed largely of soldiers from Williamson, Perry, Franklin, Johnson, Saline and Union counties. Logan was commissioned as the regiment’s colonel. The 31st saw action a short time later at the battle of Belmont, “cutting its way into the enemy’s camp and with equal valor but less hazard cutting its way out again,” according to its regimental history. Logan’s horse was killed during the fighting at Belmont.

Logan led his regiment into the first major battles in the western theater of the war, the February 1862 clashes at Forts Henry and Donelson on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. He was wounded at Donelson, but recuperated and was promoted to brigadier general in March and major general in November. By this time he was a divisional commander during the fighting around Vicksburg, Mississippi. He commanded the XV Corps under General Sherman during the Atlanta campaign, and even briefly assumed command of the entire Army of the Tennessee when its commanding general was killed.

In an army whose generals typically came from West Point or from the ranks of career officers, Logan was generally regarded as the finest volunteer general in the blue uniform. For his exemplary service, General Sherman gave Logan the honor of leading the men of the western army in the Grand Review down Pennsylvania Avenue following the end of hostilities in May 1865.

With the war over, Logan renewed his political career, but now as a Republican. He was returned to Congress in 1867, and went on to chair the House Military Affairs Committee. He was an outspoken advocate for veterans, urging pensions for all who were injured in the war. He also sought proper respects for those who had given their lives in the Union Army, which led him to help organize memorial services for those killed in the war. Logan was chosen as the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful Union Army veterans’ organization. He used this post to address the need for a more permanent way of remembering those who had sacrificed to save the Union.

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” he declared in General Order Number 11 in 1868. “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.”

The Order established May 30 as a day, “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.”

“Let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor,” Logan continued. “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 was the nation’s first Memorial Day, or as it was known at the time, “Decoration Day”.

In 1871 Logan was elected to the first of his three terms in the U.S. Senate. There he continued his advocacy for veterans as chair of the Senate’s Committee on Military Affairs. He also promoted public education. In 1882 Logan introduced legislation directing all the revenue collected from the nation’s “internal-revenue taxes on the manufacture and sale of distilled spirits,” to be appropriated for “the education of all the children living in the United States.”

John A. Logan and family. 
He promoted education as a way to unify the nation in the wake of the Civil War, and to lift up the standard of living of all Americans. “Can it be reckoned no benefit to a community that every person possesses sufficient intelligence to understand the reasons for cleanliness and exercise, the necessity for pure air and good food, and the means of securing all these?”

Such was Logan’s appeal among Union veterans nationwide that he was nominated by the Republicans for Vice President in 1884 as the running mate of James Blaine, but the ticket fell short of defeating New York Governor Grover Cleveland. The next year, Logan stood for re-election to the Senate. In those days senators were chosen not by the popular vote but by the state legislatures. A closely-divided Illinois General Assembly met and after a long deadlock eventually granted Logan a third term by a vote of 103-101. Shortly thereafter, a series of mosaics depicting the triumphant “Logan 103” began appearing in the state Capitol, most prominently in the office of State Auditor Charles Swigert who lost his right arm in the Civil War and stood with Logan for the rest of his career.

By the time Senator Logan began his third term, his health was failing. He died on December 26, 1886, at his home in Washington. Logan lay in state in the U.S. Capitol building before his burial in the national cemetery at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington DC.

Today, John A. Logan is scarcely remembered by history, but his legacy is recalled every May when Americans gather to remember those who have died in the nation’s service. While he is not well known today, at the time of his death the story was very different.

In Illinois, Logan was lionized as a Civil War hero on par with Lincoln and Grant. Together, they are the only three names included in Illinois’ State Song. At the time of Logan’s death, the new Illinois State Capitol building was just nearing completion. A statue of Logan was placed in a position towering above the rotunda, one of eight such historic Illinoisans. It is one of seven state capitol statues of Logan, the others can be found in Idaho, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Iowa and Colorado.

Numerous monuments and other honors were bestowed on Logan throughout the nation. His statue stands in Chicago’s Grant Park, at the Union Veterans Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and in Logan Circle in Washington DC. Thirty years after his death, a part of the commemoration of Illinois’ Centennial birthday in 1918 was the dedication of the state’s Centennial Monument in Chicago’s Logan Square (just off Logan Boulevard). The general’s life is celebrated at the General John A. Logan Museum in his hometown of Murphysboro.

Throughout the western United States, veterans of the Civil War settled new towns and counties and chose to name their new homes for their esteemed former commanding general: locations in Colorado, Kansas and North Dakota among them. Schools in different towns in Illinois were named for the congressman-turned-general, including the community college in his former legislative district. On the campus of John A. Logan College is a statue of Logan shedding his sword and general’s coat and stepping forward to pursue peace.

The school calls its sports teams the Volunteers. It is a tribute to the local legislator who stood down an angry mob and saved his portion of Illinois for the Union before volunteering to shed blood to save the Republic itself.