How a Civil War general from Illinois established Memorial Day

Moved by his wife's description of decorations on Confederate soldiers' graves, a Union general from Illinois is credited with establishing Memorial Day as a national holiday.

Gen. John A. Logan was born Feb. 9, 1826, in downstate Jackson County, on family property that later became a part of the city of Murphysboro.

Decades later, after fighting in several wars, "General Logan founded Memorial Day as a national holiday," said P. Michael Jones, executive director of the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro.

An anti-abolitionist and a backer of fugitive slave laws, in line with common sentiments in southern Illinois, Logan was elected to the U.S. House in 1858, according to his biography by the American Battlefield Trust.

But he sought to preserve the Union and resigned from the House to join the Army during the Civil War. He became a major general who served in the battles of Vicksburg and Atlanta, and he eventually was given command of the Army of the Tennessee.

After the war, as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, Logan "issued General Order Number 11 on May 5, 1868," setting May 30 as a day to decorate veterans' graves, Jones said. Several cities have claimed to be the first to observe Memorial Day - or Decoration Day, as it originally was called - Jones said.

"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, newspapers printed in the 1930s and 1940s stated Memorial Day started in the South. Jones said some Southern states still 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 was interested in hearing about her trip after she returned. Two months later, he issued his order.

However, Jones said historians believe John A. Logan should have been aware of the memorial observations being made in the South because of newspaper coverage at the time.

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 order is still read during Memorial Day ceremonies around the United States.

• This story was produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Charles Mills can be reached at

Duckworth: 'I think every Memorial Day about the guys from Illinois that never made it home'

P. Michael Jones, executive director of the General John A. Logan Museum, stands in front of a Memorial Day display in the museum. Courtesy of General John A. Logan Museum
The General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro, Illinois, is dedicated to the history of Gen. John A. Logan, a Civil War veteran and statesman. Courtesy of General John A. Logan Museum
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.