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John A. and Mary Logan gave us Memorial Day

Illinois couple instrumental in launching first Decoration Day

We have the formidable Southern Illinois couple, John A. and Mary Logan, to thank for our national Memorial Day, a remembrance of those who died serving in our nation’s armed forces.

And I have Dorothy Ivey to thank for reminding me this May 28 is the 150th such annual celebration, as well as the 50th anniversary of the first classes at John A. Logan College in Carterville, near Marion. The college is named after Logan, a local boy who became a Civil War hero and U.S. senator. Dorothy’s husband Nathan was the founding president of this community college.

Born in 1826, “John A.” (there was another senior Union officer named John Logan) grew up in Murphysboro in deep southern Illinois. Born 12 years later, young Mary Cunningham moved with her family from Tennessee to nearby Marion, after her father had freed his slaves.

After service in the Mexican-American War, John A. returned to Southern Illinois to begin a political career as a Stephen A. Douglas Democrat. He stepped from county clerk all the way up the ladder to the U.S. Senate and as a vice-presidential candidate.

In between elective offices, Logan became arguably the most effective “political general” of the Civil War. Often elected officials, political generals lacked military training but were important to President Lincoln.

They were appointed for several reasons: there was a shortage of West Point-trained officers; they had shown natural leadership abilities; and because of the political influence they wielded in their home states.

Lincoln was pleased to have a leading “War Democrat” like Logan on his team. Indeed, over the grumblings of senior commanders, in 1864 Lincoln sent Logan, a compelling, fiery orator, back from the battles to Illinois to campaign for the president in the critical, up-for-grabs election.

Early in the war, Logan had a horse shot out from under him at the Battle of Belmont, Mo., and suffered serious wounds at the Battle of Fort Donelson, on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. He became one of Grant’s inner circle of trusted generals in the Army of Tennessee.

In her early 20s (people grew up fast on the frontier), Mary followed her officer-husband into Kentucky and Tennessee, where she served as an informal aide-de-camp to her husband, attended to wounded soldiers, and then nursed the seriously wounded Logan back to enough health to return to the battlefields.

Logan was revered by his soldiers as “Black Jack,” for his piercing black eyes, moustache and hair. After the war and with the support of his men, Logan became an early commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful veterans’ organization.

In March 1868, the Logans were invited to tour Civil War sites and cemeteries around Richmond, Va. Unable to go because of the press of congressional matters in Washington, John A. insisted Mary make the trip.

In her captivating memoirs (“Reminiscences of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), Mary recalled that her husband was much interested in what she had seen in post-war Virginia.

“I remarked to him that I had never been so touched as I was by seeing the little flags and the withered flowers that had been laid on the graves ... by loving hands.”

Logan declared that such was “a beautiful revival of the custom of the ancients,” and he issued an order in 1868 to the Grand Army of the Republic for the decoration of the graves of Union soldiers.

He and his counselors thought “flowers would be in their greatest perfection” on May 30 and decided upon that date for “Decoration Day” (since 1967, Memorial Day).

In 1884, spurred by strong support of Union veterans, U.S. Sen. Logan became the vice-presidential candidate for Republican James G. Blaine.

Pestered by charges of corruption, Blaine lost a close race to Grover Cleveland. Logan could only take solace in the observation, probably correct, that had he been at the top of the ticket, Logan would have been elected president.

Logan died in 1886, yet Mary lived 37 years longer, dying in 1923. In a busy career as a widow, Mary became, among many activities, editor of “Home Magazine,” a major national publication; author of several books; and a vigorous campaigner for women’s suffrage, an advocacy she shared earlier with her husband.

Even though Mary was 81 at the time, her supporters thought it not unreasonable to press President Warren G. Harding to name her to his cabinet in 1921, though he declined to do so.

I find it reassuring to review the lives of such strong, positive, unselfish patriots. As I join my fellow American Legion post members in putting flags on the graves of veterans later this month, I will offer thanks to John A. and Mary Logan for the gift of remembrance.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at

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