The love story behind our first Memorial Day (1955)
By Mabel Thompson Rauch
When the flowers are reverently placed on the graves tomorrow, there will be many, as always, who will be indebted to a tall, dark-haired frontiersman-soldier-statesman for their privilege of taking part in a custom once non-existent, but now widespread and hallowed.
He was General John Alexander (Black Jack) Logan. Through his efforts, encouraged by his loyal wife, Memorial Day was founded.
Logan, when the story began, was a youth of 20, the son of a country doctor in southern Illinois. The Mexican War was beginning.
Saddling a horse one day, he rode 28 miles from his home to the town of Marion, Illinois, and sought to volunteer in a company which Captain John M. Cunningham had been recruiting there. The captain told him that the ranks were filled, but after an agreeable talk, asked him to stay overnight.
When supper was finished they sat before an open fire and the captain’s small daughter, Mary, who was eight years old, leaned against Logan’s knee while she listened, entranced, to his tales of hunting, rafting down big rivers and encountering river pirates.
She was plump, with grave, good manners, and adorable. Logan was flattered a little by her interest in him. “Mary,” he asked, “whose sweetheart are you?”
“I’ll be yours if you’ll wait for me to grow up,” she told him. They laughed and Logan said, “It’s a bargain.”
The next day, he left and joined a company of volunteers forming in Murphysboro, Illinois. During the war, he met Captain Cunningham often and they became friends.
After the war, he reminded Cunningham of the little girl’s promise. She could keep it when the time came, so far as he was concerned, Cunningham said. The matter was still just a jest.
Several years later, Logan was elected a state prosecuting attorney and covered the Third Judicial District of Illinois by horseback and buggy.
Arriving at the old river village of Shawneetown on the Ohio one day, he renewed his friendship with Cunningham, who had moved there, and he inquired for Mary. Cunningham told him she was away at a convent in Kentucky and added: “She will graduate and be home in June. You’ll find she has a mind of her own, John.”
Logan went back that summer to find out for himself.
Mary was 17 then. The plump little girl of eight had grown to be a dark, regal beauty; the youths of the town were well aware of it. They were paying her as much attention as she would let them. She flirted with them lightly, but made no choice. The field was open for Logan — 12 years her senior.
He courted her that summer, and one Sunday evening, after many others they’d spent together, he led her out along the edge of a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. As they sat on a fallen log, watching the fading sunset, he asked her to marry him.
She told him she would.
The wedding was held that November in 1855, and afterward, they drove by horse and buggy the 35 miles to the small town of Benton, where they set up housekeeping. Logan kept on in public life. He was elected to Congress.
After the War Between the States began, he recruited the first companies of the Illinois 31st Regiment, later as Colonel led the regiment into action on the Northern side (although Mary’s brothers fought with the South) and survived even after his horse was shot from beneath him by Southern fire. Mary stood by him.
In Cairo, Illinois, she nursed the wounded; she begged bedding and food for them; she encouraged her husband as his honors increased. He rose finally to command the Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Atlanta.
Upon being made Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, Logan in 1868 issued his now famous General Order No. 11 “for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…”
He said he hoped the custom would be “kept up from year to year,” with the observance continuing, as in 1868, on May 30. [The holiday was first known as Decoration Day.]
Even before the end of the war, May 30 had been observed in several of the Southern states. Now the day is dedicated to the dead of all wars. (Some of the Southern states continue to set aside memorial days of their own.)
Logan progressed from the House to the Senate and ran unsuccessfully for Vice-President in 1884 on the ticket with James G. Blaine.
After his death, Mary wrote a book, Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife, recalling with pride that although there had been differences of opinion as to who founded Memorial Day, as it became known, she knew the circumstances.
The man who waited for her, and by whom she always stood, founded it.