Editor's Note: This is the latest story in the Illinois Important Dates series, brought to you 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.
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 in Murphysboro that is dedicated to him.
Logan was born Feb. 9, 1826, in Jackson County, Illinois, on family property that became a part of the city of Murphysboro in 1843.
“General Logan founded Memorial Day as a national holiday,” said P. Michael Jones, executive director of the Gen. John A. Logan Museum. “He did that when he issued General Order Number 11 on May 5, 1868, as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, sometimes referred to as the GAR.”
Jones said 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?”
Jones said historians have several theories about where it started. However, according to research, newspapers printed in the 1930s and 1940s stated Memorial Day started in the South. Jones said today some Southern states observe Confederate Memorial Day.
In her book “Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife: An Autobiography,” Logan’s wife, Mary Logan, 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 said her husband, Gen. Logan, was interested in her trip when she returned and told him how touched she was to see the decorated graves. Gen. Logan issued the General Order to observe Memorial Day two months later, in May 1868.
However, Jones said historians believe John A. Logan should have been aware of the memorial observations being made in the South due to press coverage at the time.
Logan, as commander-in-chief of the GAR, a Union veterans organization, issued General Order Number 11, the Memorial Day Order, on May 5, 1868, from the GAR Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Jones said the GAR was a precursor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
At the time he issued his General Order, Logan was also an Illinois representative at large of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the whole state of Illinois and not one specific district.
The 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.”
According to Jones, Logan’s General Order is still read during Memorial Day ceremonies around the United States.
Charles Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.