Just a Bit About Memorial Day

John A. Logan Statute – Logan Circle, Washington DC

Today is Monday, May 28, 2018. It is Memorial Day. And since its memorial day, I thought it may be interesting to talk a bit about the origins of the day. While, setting aside time to commemorate the dead of great battles goes back to time imemorium, in the US what we now know of as Memorial Day began after the Civil War. While a recent New York Times piece reminds us of the more complicated history of Memorial day discovered by historian David W. Blight. Blight discovered contemporary news reports of a forgotten incident from the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune. Of black celebration of Union death. From that investigation, Blight claimed that “African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina.” Indeed, there are other stories that explain the genesis of the setting aside a day of commemoration, usually involving suppressed histories of former slaves and black people generally hollowing the dead of that war that should have and could have been their liberation.

But the generally accepted story of the origin of Memorial Day comes from 1868, where General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (think the VFW for civil war vets) ironically copied the now annual observance in the Charleston and elsewhere in the South. In General Order No. 11, Logan established the 30th of May as Decoration Day – a time for folks to adorn the graves of the Union war dead with flowers and to hold solemn celebrations of their sacrifice.

I was recently in in Denver Colorado, and I took a stroll around the Capitol grounds. They have a beautiful capitol building and I just walked up to the front of it and on one side of the main entrances there was a plaque with the Gettysburg address and on the other was General Logan’s General Order No. 11. I hadn’t heard it before, and I stood there for a few minutes and read it. I thought it was quite wonderful and so I thought I would share it with you:

General Order No. 11

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 foes? 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 fond 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 Logan, as many others of his age, has a bit of a sorted history, and the civil war played a pivotal role in his life. He was born in 1826 in Jackson County, Illinois to a local doctor. So for Illinois back then, that’s something. He received an education and eventually enlisted in the army as many well-to-do were keen to do. Logan received a commission as a second lieutenant and made regimental quartermaster of the 1st Illinois Infantry for the Mexican–American War. After the war he studied law and he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1852, serving a term before becoming prosecuting attorney of the Third Judicial District of Illinois. In 1858 and 1860, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. As a Douglas Democrat, he was not really keen on the brewing conflict and found himself often in an awkward and often off-putting side of history in the run up to the war. Remember at that time the south was basically all Democrat. To give you a flavor of Logan’s toeing the Democrat line, in 1853, he helped pass a law to prohibit all black people, including freed slaves, from settling in the state of Lincoln.

Many in his district, and perhaps Logan himself, held secessionist sentiments. He agreed with every proposal and agreement that tried to prevent the South from leaving the Union. So quick was he to agree, that many thought that when it came down to it, Logan might throw his weight behind the Southern cause. That changed after hostilities broke out in 1861. While still a sitting member of Congress, Logan went along with a Michigan regiment to the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.

During the battle historian Thomas J. Goss writes: “The Illinois congressman, dressed in civilian clothes, spent time under fire helping the wounded and rallying stragglers during the skirmishes before the main battle.”

Logan’s apparently strong allegiance to the Union came as a surprise to friends and neighbors who knew his southern sympathies in the “Little Egypt” section of southern Illinois that sent him to Washington.

Gross recants a story of Logan’s return to Little Egypt: “Returning to Marion, a town with divided loyalty in the heart of Little Egypt, Logan delivered a speech on August 19 that clearly and publicly stated his views on the political situation. He climbed on a wagon in the town square and expressed his support for Lincoln with inspiring rhetoric, an action that revealed his value to the administration. ‘The time has come when a man must be for or against his country,’ Logan announced, ‘I, for one, shall stand or fall with the Union and shall this day enroll for war. I want as many of you as will to come with me.’ Several immediately stepped forward, and Logan repeated his announcements until he had gathered enough men to muster into service the 31st Illinois. His political appeal was reflected by the fact that eight of the ten companies of the regiments were recruited in his congressional district, and, by some accounts, all but twelve men of his regiment were Democrats.” Logan resigned from Congress to lead forces against the Confederacy.

Logan was so successful during the war that President Lincoln himself told an aide: “John Logan was acting so splendidly now that he absolved him in his own mind for all the wrong he ever did and all he will do hereafter.” Indeed, Logan traced Lincoln’s evolution on the point of the war. At first, he was like the appeasers in in the thirties, and would do anything to keep the Union together, even if that meant keeping slavery. He maybe even had some sympathy for genuine issues of state’s rights and autonomy – he wasn’t exactly a thumping abolitionist. But as the war progressed, he saw it as a fight where everything, namely slavery, had to be remade. He grew to see it as a fight not merely of preservation of the Union, but the liberation of race-based chattel slavery.

After the war, Logan went back to Congress, this time as a radical Republican in the House and then the Senate. He led the fight in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, acting as a manager of the trial. A pet issue of his was overturning the conviction of Maj. General Fitz John Porter. So here is the quick story of Major General Fitz John Porter. Porter was from a family of naval officers, his cousin was David Farraugt, who has a park in DC named after him, the first US Admiral. He went to West Point, served in the Mexican-American War, the whole deal. He rubbed arms with the likes of George McClellan and Bill Franklin, and eventually earned the spot of post adjutant for none other than Robert E. Lee. When the war broke out, Porter was assigned to and often stepped in as commander of the Army of the Potomac during McClellan’s rather frequent absences.

After the failure of the Peninsula Campaign and a transfer to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia, Porter joined voices, to the anger of Lincoln, noting general distrust of Pope’s abilities as commander. Lincoln was not happy with this cacophony of criticism, as Pope was a personal friend. During the Second Battle of Bull Run, because of both the fog of war and genuinely poor leadership, Porter was unable to carry out orders issued by Pope, and was subsequently Court-Martialed for a number of counts of disobeying orders and misbehavior in front of the enemy. The Court martial was a scandal, where accusations of cowardice, bad leadership, and blame for Union loses in the early part of the war where the fodder for a war weary public. Porter was found guilty by a jury hand-picked by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Logan was instrumental in his rehabilitation.

It was while serving as Senator that John Logan was made Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic and made himself famous for Memorial Day. In 1884 he ran for Vice-President with James Blaine, but obviously since you don’t remember President Blaine from 3rd grade social studies, you can guess how it turned out for ‘em. After getting elected in 1885, Logan fell ill and died the day after Christmas of 1886.

So that’s just a little background on Memorial Day and I like the Order so I thought I’d share it. Have a Good Memorial Day and don’t forget to check out other parts of the Blog and new Episodes of the Sensible Socialist every Sunday!

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