By Ken Zurski
General John A. Logan could not go. “Blackjack Logan” as his men affectionately dubbed him due to his strikingly dark hair and eyes, was invited by a newspaper man in Chicago, Charles Wilson, to visit Richmond, Virginia. It was March 1868, and Logan now the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic was too busy in the nation’s capital overseeing veteran’s affairs to break away. But Wilson had invited the entire Logan family with him on the trip. So he insisted Logan’s wife Mary, daughter Dolly and Baby son, John Jr. still attend The general gave them his blessing.
In Richmond, Mary Logan was prepared for the worse. Large portions of the city had been destroyed by fire after the North’s occupation and now three years removed from the brutality of war, it still resembled a battleground. “Driving from place to place we were greatly interested and realized more than we ever could have, had we not visited the city immediately after the war, the horrors through which the people of the Confederacy had passed,” Mary recalled after arriving.
Because of its proximity to Washington, many Union leaders, including President Lincoln, toured Richmond shortly after the North captured the embattled Southern capital. Lincoln arrived with his son Tad on April 4, 1865 to a military-style artillery gun salute. He viewed first hand the devastation caused by the fires set by the escaping Rebels. The city’s structures were nearly gone, but the war was over. Five days later, General Robert E Lee signed surrender papers. Less than a week after that, Lincoln was dead.
But Richmond survived.
“The hotel we stayed in was in a very wretched condition,” Mary would later write about her trip. “And we expected to find the rebellion everywhere.” Wilson, another war veteran, was interested in seeing Libby prison, so they took a carriage to the site. Along the roads, Mary noticed “colored people” still picking up the remnants of exploded shrapnel, broken cannon and Minie balls to sell for iron scrap at local foundries. She remembers passing a poor little boy, so “thinly clad that he had little to protect him for the inclemency of the weather.” The March chill had given the city a depressing glumness. “Well isn’t it so miserably hot to-day,” Mary recalls the boy humourously calling out to the driver, while at the same time, “his teeth were chattering,” she wrote.
The carriage then made its way to the cemeteries. This is where Mary took pause. Not only were there endless lines of stones, but they were all decorated. Mary was moved by the site. “In the churchyard we saw hundreds of graves of Confederate soldiers. These graves had upon them bleached Confederate flags and faded flowers and wreaths that had been laid upon by loving hands.” Mary stopped to reflect. “I had never been so touched by what I had seen,” she said.
When she returned to Washington, Mary summoned her husband and told him what she had witnessed at the grave sites. Logan said that it was a beautiful revival of a custom of the ancients preserving the memory of the dead. “Within my power,” he promised her, “I will see that the tradition is carried out for Union soldier as well.” A promise he did not wait long to keep.
Almost immediately, Logan sent a letter to the adjunct- general of the Grand Army of the Republic, dictating an order for the first decoration of the graves of Union soldiers. He wrote:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit..
On May 30, Just as Logan had ordered the first Memorial Day service took place at Arlington Cemetery. Logan had given a directive how to proceed:
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, — the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
Mary says that her husband picked the end of May because “flowers would be in their greatest perfection.” But perhaps most fitting of all was the day itself. Although no one could predict the weather, it was sunny and warm, a perfect start to the summer season. Baskets of brilliantly colored flowers in full bloom and enriched by the warmth of the sun’s light were spread throughout the national cemetery grounds.
It was as Mary would later describe it, “a beautiful day.”