Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad.
Pope Benedict XVI, April 16, 2008
John A. Logan is the father of Memorial Day. Today he is largely forgotten except to Civil War buffs and that is a shame. He was a fascinating man and he is largely responsible for establishing the tradition of putting aside a day in the calendar to our nation’s war dead.
Logan began the Civil War as a Democrat congressman from southern Illinois. He was ardently anti-War even after the firing on Fort Sumter, denouncing the Lincoln administration and calling for peace and compromise. He was attacked as being disloyal to the Union and an almost advocate of the Confederacy.
This perception changed in the twinkling of an eye at the battle of Bull Run. Like many another congressman he went out to view the Union army launch an attack on the Confederates. Unlike the other congressmen, Logan picked up a musket and, attaching himself to a Michigan regiment, blazed away at the Confederates with that musket. This experience transformed Logan into an ardent advocate of the War.
He returned to Southern Illinois and gave a fiery speech in Marion, Illinois for the Union that helped swing that section of the state in support of the War. Resigning from Congress, he helped raise an infantry regiment from southern Illinois, and was made colonel of the regiment, the 31rst Illinois.
Logan quickly made a name for himself as a fighter. At the battle of Belmont he led his regiment in a successful charge, and was noted for his exceptional courage. He would eventually be promoted to major general and was one of the best corp commanders in the Union army, briefly commanding the Army of the Tennessee. He was wounded three times in the war, one of the wounds being serious enough that he was erroneously reported as killed, a report that might have been proven to be accurate if he had not been nursed back to health by his wife.
Logan was never beaten in any engagement that he fought in during the War. He was popular with his men who affectionately called him “Black Jack”, and would often chant his name on the battlefield as he led them from the front. On May 24th 1865, as a tribute to his brilliant war record, he commanded the Army of the Tennessee during the victory Grand Review of the Union armies in Washington.
After the War, Logan began his political career anew, serving as a congressman from Illinois and a senator. He was now a radical Republican and fought ardently for civil rights for blacks. He ran for Vice President in 1884 on the Republican ticket that was defeated by Grover Cleveland. He was considered the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 1888, and might well have been elected President that year, but for his untimely death in 1886 at the age of sixty.
From 1868 to 1871, Logan served three consecutive terms as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veteran’s association. He started the custom of remembering the Union war dead on May 30th when he issued General Order Eleven on May 5, 1868:
Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868
I. 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. In this observance no form or 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 by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a 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 found 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 free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and 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 in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; 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 as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope 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 call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.
By command of:
JOHN A. LOGAN,
N. P. CHIPMAN,
The May 30 Decoration Day events became a fixture of life in the Northern states. The states of the old Confederacy had similar events to honor their Civil War dead, but on different dates, varying from state to state. The term Memorial Day was first used in 1882, but the name Decoration Day remained for the holiday until after World War II. As Civil War veterans aged and passed from the scene, the day was broadened to remember all of America’s war dead. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 moved Memorial Day to the fourth Monday in May.
And so today we remember those we owe a debt to that can never be repaid. We put up monuments to them that they cannot, in the flesh, see, give speeches that they cannot hear and write blog posts that they cannot read. What they accomplished is far beyond “our poor power to add or detract” to, but it is very important that we never forget “what they did”. Their sacrifices are why we enjoy this day in freedom, and that is worthy of remembrance not just on this day but every day.