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Meet the creator of Memorial Day

May 25, 2019

Editor’s note: This is the latest story in the Illinois Important Dates series, sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. Throughout the year, writers from newspapers throughout Illinois will mark milestones and holidays with articles noting their significance in the state.

MURPHYSBORO — Civil War Gen. John A. Logan is credited with creating what we know today as Memorial Day, according to the executive director of the museum dedicated to him.

Logan was born Feb. 9, 1826, in Jackson County on family property that became a part of the city of Murphysboro in 1843.

“Gen. Logan founded Memorial Day as a national holiday,” said P. Michael Jones, executive director of the Gen. John A. Logan Museum there.

“He did that when he issued General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, sometimes referred to as the GAR.”

Several cities have claimed to be the first to observe Memorial Day — or Decoration Day, as it was called after the Civil War.

“The question is not who started the Memorial Day we have today; it was John A. Logan,” Jones said. “The question is, where did Logan get his idea?”

Historians have several theories about where it started. Newspapers printed in the 1930s and ’40s, though, reported that Memorial Day started in the South, and today, some Southern states observe Confederate Memorial Day, Jones said.

In her book “Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife: An Autobiography,” Logan’s wife, Mary, wrote about her March 1868 visit to Virginia:

“In the churchyard near Petersburg, we saw hundreds of the graves of Confederate soldiers. These graves had upon them small bleached Confederate flags and faded flowers.”

She told her husband how touched she was to see the decorated graves; he issued the General Order to observe Memorial Day 2 months later, in May 1868.

Historians believe, though, that Logan should have been aware of the memorial observations being made in the South because of press coverage at the time, Jones said.

Logan issued the Memorial Day Order, on May 5, 1868, from the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the GAR, a Union veterans organization, and the precursor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

At the time, Logan also was an Illinois representative-at-large of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the whole state and not one specific district.

His Memorial Day General Order states:

“The 30th 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.

“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds about them with the choicest flowers of springtime.

“It is the purpose of the commander in chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.”

Logan’s General Order still is read during Memorial Day ceremonies nationwide.

Charles Mills can be reached at charles.mills@effinghamdailynews.com.

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