Recalling the origins of Memorial Day

Tomorrow, the US officially recognizes Memorial Day. But the origin of a day to remember our fallen heroes was originally set aside as May 30, and the story of the man largely believed responsible for starting the tradition is a remarkable testament to the healing power of remembrance.

Nine years ago, I penned a tribute to former Union General John Logan, a pro-war Democrat, whose leadership of the veterans group Grand Army of the Republic set the stage for his passionate advocay of formally remembering the fallen during the Civil War.

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.”

The gesture of placing flowers on the graves of the dead from both sides occurred in several places in the south immediately after the war. But the Columbia, MS women caught the attention of hard war man Horace Greely who immediately grasped the significance. Perhaps remembering the dead from both the North and South could reunite the country.

Logan went on to become a senator and was nominated as a Democrat for vice president in 1884. He also wrote a loving tribute to Civil War volunteers, in contrast to General Grant's autobiography that trashed the citizen soldiers. But his promotion for a "Decoration Day" on May 30, using the very politically powerful veterans group, the GAR, guaranteed that date would serve as a day of remembrance.