Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad.
Pope Benedict, April 16, 2008
John A. Logan is the father of Memorial Day. Today he is largely forgotten except to Civil War buffs and that is a shame. He was a fascinating man and he is largely responsible for establishing the tradition of putting aside a day in the calendar to our nation’s war dead.
Logan began the Civil War as a Democrat congressman from southern Illinois. He was ardently anti-War even after the firing on Fort Sumter, denouncing the Lincoln administration and calling for peace and compromise. He was attacked as being disloyal to the Union and an almost advocate of the Confederacy.
This perception changed in the twinkling of an eye at the battle of Bull Run. Like many another congressman he went out to view the Union army launch an attack on the Confederates. Unlike the other congressmen, Logan picked up a musket and, attaching himself to a Michigan regiment, blazed away at the Confederates with that musket. This experience transformed Logan into an ardent advocate of the War.
He returned to southern Illinois and gave a fiery speech in Marion, Illinois for the Union that helped swing that section of the state in support of the War. Resigning from Congress, he helped raise an infantry regiment from southern Illinois, and was made colonel of the regiment, the 31rst Illinois.
Logan quickly made a name for himself as a fighter. At the battle of Belmont he led his regiment in a successful charge, and was noted for his exceptional courage. He would eventually be promoted to major general and was one of the best corp commanders in the Union army, briefly commanding the Army of the Tennessee. He was wounded three times in the War, one of the wounds being serious enough that he was erroneously reported as killed, a report that might have been proven to be accurate if he had not been nursed back to health by his wife.
Logan was never beaten in any engagement that he fought in during the War. He was popular with his men who affectionately called him “Black Jack”, and would often chant his name on the battlefield as he led them from the front. On May 24th 1865, as a tribute to his brilliant war record, he commanded the Army of the Tennessee during the victory Grand Review of the Union armies in Washington.
After the War, Logan began his political career anew, serving as a congressman from Illinois and a senator. He was now a radical Republican and fought ardently for civil rights for blacks. He ran for Vice President in 1884 on the Republican ticket that was defeated by Grover Cleveland. He was considered the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 1888, and might well have been elected President that year, but for his untimely death in 1886 at the age of sixty.
From 1868 to 1871, Logan served three consecutive terms as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veteran’s association. He started the custom of remembering the Union war dead on May 30th when he issued General Order Eleven on May 5, 1868: