The Origin of the National Memorial Day
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), issued General Order No. 11 designating May 30 “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.” Logan’s General Order, his Memorial Day Order, established Memorial Day as a national holiday.
An online search reveals that over two dozen communities claim the honor of having observed that first Memorial Day. Recent research, however, indicate that only one of them, Columbus, Georgia, has ample contemporary documentation to back up its claim.
In their book, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America, authors Daniel Bellware and Richard Gardiner, Ph.D report that in March 1866, Mary Ann Williams of Columbus, Georgia, placed a letter in her hometown paper inviting the women of the South to join Columbus “in setting aside one day annually, as a Memorial Day holiday.” (Columbus State University, 2014, p 37) This letter, which suggested April 26 for an annual observance, was carried in newspapers across the South and even in some Northern cities.
The Reading, Pennsylvania, Times reported on May 10, 1866, that April 26, “has been generally observed throughout the South by the wives, mothers, and daughters of the section in ornamenting the graves of their dead soldiers…with the intention of perpetuating it in future years.” The paper also states that “the proposition to inaugurate this memorial day…originated with a lady in Columbus, Georgia.” Between April 26, 1866, and June 9, 1866, memorial day observances were held in every Southern state.
John A. Logan took part in a Memorial Day observance in Woodlawn Cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, on April 29, 1866, just three days after the one in Columbus, Georgia. This observance, unlike Columbus, has no contemporary newspaper accounts. Information about this first Memorial Day in Illinois comes from oral tradition and a note written by Woodlawn Cemetery sextant James Green on a blank page in his Bible. This Bible, located and photographed in 1929 by historians at what is now Southern Illinois University, was later destroyed in a home fire, but numerous photocopies of Green’s original notes remain.
Logan biographer Gary Ecelbarger believes that the Woodlawn Memorial Day was the impetus for his Memorial Day Order. Logan’s wife Mary, however, does not mention the Woodlawn event in her autobiography. According to Mary it was her visit to Petersburg, Virginia’s Blandford Cemetery in March 1868 that brought her husband to issue his famous order. She wrote, “(I told my husband that) I had never been so touched as I was by seeing the little flags and the withered flowers that had been laid on these graves (of the Confederate dead).” Logan replied, “that it was a beautiful revival of the custom of the ancients… and that he… would issue an order for the decoration of the graves of Union soldiers.” (Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1997, pp. 242-243)
It seems almost impossible to believe that Logan did not have knowledge of these Confederate Memorial Days before Mary’s visit to Virginia, especially with all of the press coverage they received. In fact, in a speech given on July 4, 1866, in Salem, Illinois, Logan may have been alluding to these events when he complained that “traitors in the South have their gatherings, day after day, to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers, that they may live in their memory as long as life shall last… .” (The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 13, 1866, p. 6, newspapers.com)
The Carbondale, Illinois Free Press, in a page one story dated May 29, 1931 reported, “It has long been an historical fact the practice of decorating the graves of the Civil War dead had been carried out in the Southern States, but until the Bible [of James Green] was discovered by historians it had always been a debatable question when the practice was taken up in the north, except as observed in different local communities.” (newspapers.com)
Despite these facts or perhaps because they had been forgotten, in 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that Waterloo, New York, had observed the nation’s first Memorial Day on May 5, 1866.
Logan’s establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday is widely accepted. The question of the holiday’s origin and of why Logan issued General Order No. 11, however, continues to be debated by historians. In the end, it is the reader who must evaluate the sources and decide which of the many accounts he/she feels is correct.