GENERAL JOHN A. LOGAN
This post originally appeared on May 30, 2005
Congressman John Logan was angry. His party, the Democrats, had just lost the election of 1860 to Abe Lincoln and the Republicans. But his opposition to the fire eaters of the South who were agitating for secession had incurred the wrath of men who just recently had called him a “son of the South.” In a speech on the floor of the House, Logan warned his Southern colleagues that if they persisted in their folly, the union would crush them. He returned to his district and gave a speech at Marion, Illinois that today is widely seen as helping keep that vital part of Illinois – “little Egypt” – loyal to the Union.
Resigning from Congress, he was one of a handful of Democratic lawmakers that fought on the Union side during the war. Most of these political officers were a disaster. Benjamin Butler, for instance, was a Massachusetts Democrat whose ineptitude as a soldier was surpassed only by his incompetence as an administrator. While overseeing the military occupation of New Orleans, Butler issued the infamous “General Order #28” that stipulated that “any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
Other political generals were equally unfit for command and ended up costing thousands of lives because of their incompetent leadership. But not so John Logan.
Logan organized a regiment of volunteers and was named a Colonel. Immediately distinguishing himself on the field of battle, Logan made it his business to study the art of war. Attached to the Army of the Tennessee, General Grant recognized Logan’s leadership ability and promoted him to General. He played a key role in the victory at Raymond, Mississippi that cleared the way for Grant’s march to Vicksburg and eventual capture of that vital city.
When Grant moved North to take command of the Union armies, Sherman, who had nothing but disdain for political generals, took over the Army of the Tennessee. But after seeing Logan in action during the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman was impressed enough to give Logan command of the entire left wing of his army on its march to the sea. Again, Logan distinguished himself as he fought off whatever resistance the South could throw at Sherman as he devastated the countryside.
Popular with the men under his command, Logan was a rarity – a commander the men could trust. They sensed his concern for their welfare as Logan made it a habit of visiting the company mess to taste the food himself. If he found it inadequate, he’d dress down the company commander and order him to fix the situation. Usually it was something simple like changing cooks or cleaning the cooking pots once and a while. In addition, Logan made sure the men under his command were properly supplied with shoes, blankets, and other necessities that kept the men comfortable during winter months.
Logan’s concern for his men was evident after the war as well. Elected to Congress again in 1866, Logan took part in the first memorial day observance in Illinois. It’s thought that Logan became especially interested in the issue of a decoration day for the nation following a gesture by the women of Columbia, Mississippi who, during a remembrance for the dead, placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Southern soldiers. Logan had fought with Grant at the battle of Columbia and remembered well the hatred of civilians toward the Union Army. Horace Greeley wrote a famous editorial about the Columbian women and Francis Miles Finch wrote a beautiful poem for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Blue and the Grey.”
Logan’s popularity with the men paid off when he was named Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In 1868 he issued his famous general order that designated May 30th as Decoration Day “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.”
Because of Logan’s leadership, the GAR grew into the most influential voting bloc in the Republican party. For more than 30 years, no Republican could get the Presidential nomination without the support of the GAR. At it’s peak, more than 400,000 veterans of the civil war were members. Their presence during parades and remembrances of that war became a source of inspiration to an entire generation of American historians and writers.
Logan would go on and be elected Senator and even be nominated on the 1884 Democratic ticket for Vice President. He was a strong advocate of public education and served on the Committee for Military Affairs. When he died in 1886, he lay in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol. Thousands of tearful veterans filed past his coffin to pay their last respects to the man they nicknamed “Blackjack.”
Some historians have taken a less than charitable view of Logan’s motivations for initiating Decoration Day. They point out that Logan probably used the holiday to promote his own political career. His bid for the Senate in 1871 played up his role in boosting the holiday and he never failed to remind audiences of his service in that regard.
However, Logan also wrote a loving tribute to his men in a book that came out after his death entitled The Volunteer Soldier in America which was written partly in response to U.S. Grant’s autobiography that criticized the performance of volunteers during the war.
John Logan didn’t come up with the idea of Memorial Day. But his generous inclusion of Southern dead in his General Order authorizing Decoration Day was a magnanimous gesture that helped heal the wounds of that conflict and bring us together as a nation.
It might not be a bad idea this Memorial Day to take a page from our forefathers and recognize that those on the other side of the debate of the War in Iraq mourn our losses as well. For this one day, let us be united in recognition of the service these brave men performed and the fact that no matter what you believe, they have given that “last full measure of devotion” to a grateful nation.
My special friend Romeocat has a beautiful Memorial Day post filled with pictures of her recent trip to Washington, D.C. Special attention is paid to the World War II Memorial, an emotional place for her since her father served on Wake Island during the war.
A great Memorial Day A/V treat.