As time goes on, people tend to forget how things came to be.
John A. Logan, a politician and Murphysboro’s favorite son, served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. Many credit him with founding Memorial Day 150 years ago, although not everyone agrees or even knows about it.
“The further we get from any event, public memory fades,” said P. Michael Jones, director of the Gen. John. A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro. “Our empathy for that event fades.”
When the Civil War began, the state of Illinois largely supported the Union, but large swaths of Southern Illinois — including the district that Logan, a Democrat, represented — were sympathetic to the Confederate cause. In 1861, being a Democrat meant siding with the Confederacy. By fighting for the Union, Logan bucked convention.
“He really chose country over party,” Jones said.
The wounds from the Civil War were still raw in the years after the 1865 Confederate surrender. The severity of a death toll thought to be around 700,000 was exacerbated by the fact that each was an American. Family members, friends and neighbors mourned their losses together. Entire communities were destroyed.
It became commonplace, mainly in the South, for mourners to put flags and flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. There are published reports of memorial events taking place in numerous southern cities. Some even dubbed the events as “Memorial Day.”
In 1866, Waterloo, New York, hosted its first Memorial Day event. One hundred years later, the U.S. government recognized the town as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
“It’s a contested holiday, as far as who started it,” Jones said. “Logan must have known it was going on. Some felt it was imitating the Southern holiday.”
Few argue that Logan wasn’t inspired by ongoing events. In fact, his wife, Mary, told her husband that she saw faded flags and wilted flowers on soldiers’ graves during a trip to Virginia.
On May 5, 1868, Logan issued General Order No. 11, which designated May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” It became known as Decoration Day.
“That is the basis for the modern Memorial Day holiday,” Jones said.
The first Decoration Day event took place at Arlington National Cemetery, where Gen. James Garfield spoke and 5,000 people decorated the graves of more than 20,000 soldiers.
The holiday gradually changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and in 1967, the name was made official. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and decided to observe the day on the last Monday of May.
While Logan’s influence in the establishment of Memorial Day may be somewhat overlooked, the significance of the holiday remains as stated in General Order No. 11:
“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.”