Battle of June 9, 1864

Ladies' Memorial Association

Grand Army of the Republic

Mrs. Logan Inspired by Memorial Observances in Petersburg

General Order Number 11





Mrs. Mary LoganDuring the Month of March 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, Mrs. Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, wife of General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic -- the Union Army Veterans Organization -- went to Petersburg. She recounted her visit in her article published in the Los Angeles Daily Times dated May 30, 1903, titled MEMORIAL DAY: A NOTED WOMAN'S STORY OF ITS ORIGIN AND GROWTH. According to Mrs. Logan:

" is especially pleasant to know that the ideal of Memorial Day was unwittingly suggested by the devotion of the people of the South to their heroes. In the early spring of 1868 I was one of a party ... to make a pilgrimage to the battlefields of Virginia. Gen. Logan had long been anxious to make a personal inspection of this section of the country over which the great conflict raged in order to enlarge his knowledge of the entire course of the war .... Unfortunately, however, circumstances prevented him accompanying me and he did not see with his own eyes what really prompted the first Decoration Day. It is my pleasure to revert to it and to pay a just tribute to the gentle people whose acts gave me the inspiration that resulted in the Decoration Day of today." Mrs. Logan talks about the difficulties of getting a guide and transportation, then:

"But it is not of this that I would speak, but of the incident that gave me the inspiration that resulted in Decoration Day. We were in Petersburg, Virginia, and had taken advantage of the fact to inspect the oldest church there, the bricks of which had been brought from England. There was an old English air all about the venerable structure, and we passed to the building through a churchyard. The weather was balmy and spring-like, and as we passed through the rows of graves I noticed that many of them had been strewn with beautiful blossoms and decorated with small flags of the dead Confederacy. The sentimental idea so enwrapped me that I inspected them more closely and discovered that they were every one the graves of soldiers who had died for the Southern cause. The actions seemed to me to be a beautiful tribute to the soldier martyrs and grew upon me while I was returning to Washington. Gen. Logan was at that time the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, with his headquarters in Washington, and as soon as he met me at the station I told him of the graves of the Southern soldiers in the cemetery at Petersburg. He listened with great interest and then said: 'What a splendid thought! We will have it done all over the country, and the Grand Army shall do it! I will issue the order at once for a national Memorial Day for the decoration of the graves of all those noble fellows who died for their country.' ... He immediately entered into a conference with his several aides with a view of selecting a date that should be kept from year to year. He realized that it must be a time when the whole country was blooming with flowers, and May 30th was finally selected as the best season for the annual observance of the day." Following this discussion, Mrs. Logan goes on to quote essential parts of Grand Army of the Republic General Order No. 11 which was issued on May 5, 1868, designating May 30th "... for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of the comrades who died in defense of their country in the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land." Mrs. Logan adds a postscript:

"Time has shown how well that order has been obeyed, and although the observance of the day has grown as the years have glided into the past and every city and hamlet in the country assists in the noble work, the eyes of the nation are every year centered upon the great national cemetery on the Heights of Arlington where, lying under the emerald lawns and shaded by the great trees, are the bodies in whose honor the day was inaugurated. Nearby the graves of the men who wore the blue are hundreds of mounds that cover all that was mortal of those who wore the gray, and it is one of the most beautiful traits of forgiving humanity that none of them are overlooked on the most sacred day in the American calendar. In Dixie they garland with one hand the mounds above the ashes of the northern soldiers while with the other they strew beautiful blosoms on the graves of their own heroes. We of the north do the same, for they were all heroes, each dying for the cause he thought was right. They gave their all to prove their sincerity, and they all died true Americans whatever their political affiliations may have been...."

The result of extensive research in the Logan Family Papers in the Library of Congress lets us draw several conclusions about Mrs. Logan, especially her connection with the establishment of Memorial Day. In Mrs. Logan's papers, there are numerous references to Memorial Day. A copy of one of her speeches, in 1903, describes in detail her visit to Petersburg and her description of the decorated graves in Blandford Cemetery there. One should note that there are several species of flowering plants in full bloom in Petersburg in March making blossoms readily available for decorating graves. The article Mrs. Logan wrote for the Los Angeles Daily Times, quoted above, tells the full story of her visit to Blandford Cemetery in March 1868, how she saw the decorated graves in the cemetery, her telling General Logan of what she had seen, his response that he would see that the same was done for the Union dead, and his promulgating of General Order 11 which created the National Memorial Day. The Logan files show that the terms Memorial Day and Decoration Day were used interchangeably from the earliest observances. The Petersburg connection with the National Memorial Day is clear, historical, and convincing.

In the Logan family files, every piece of Mrs. Logan's correspondence from 1900 on shows it is virtually stunning to see how active she was, what a sharp mind she had, and how much in demand she was for both articles series and speeches even in advanced age. She carried on active correspondence with: The President of the United States, Supreme Court Justices, envoys, foreign dignitaries, Cabinet officers, and politicians. Editors and publishers wrote her regularly asking for written contributions to their publications. She made speeches on a variety of subjects all over the eastern and midwestern parts of the United States. She was a famous hostess at both her home in Northwest Washington, DC, and at her farm near Hyattsville, Maryland. She was a Board member later President of the American National Red Cross having succeeded her good friend Clara Barton in that office. It is obvious she had a clear, unfanciful mind; and her role in creating the National Memorial Day is historical, documented fact. Our National Memorial Day, at the time of this writing, is observed on the last full weekend in May.

Credits:For assistance in research on Mrs. Logan, thanks go to: Ashleigh Moody, Chairman of the History Committee of the Historic Petersburg Foundation; Patricia Abbott-Ryan, Secretary of the Cockade City Garden Club; Michael Jones of the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro, Illinois; Mr. Ralph Drew of the Los Angeles Times; the staff of the Library of Congress; and Elizabeth Cuthbert, President of the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg, Virginia.


Copyright © 2002 James H. Ryan, Ph.D
All Rights Reserved