Our contemporary Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War experience. As deaths increased from 1861 to the end of the war those killed in action were recovered, buried, and memorialized through the service member’s unit, his comrades, his family, his home town, or his home state. There was no army-wide system for accurate identification of the remains, next of kin notification, or burial. For years after the war the bodies of tens of thousands of soldiers were reinterred by their family to family or local cemeteries; or, after 1867, to the new national cemeteries.
Today there are 147 United States National Cemeteries maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs; 14 cemeteries associated with historic sites or battlefields maintained by the National Park Service; and 24 American military cemeteries maintained overseas by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Since the Civil War administrative improvements have been made in identification, notification, and burial; but nothing mitigates the profound loss experienced by family, friends, and the nation.
While towns and states began to develop various memorialization’s, ceremonies, and remembrances, the idea of a national memorial day was the consequence of John A. Logan’s indefatigable work and skilled leadership.
Before of the Civil War Logan was a US Congressman from Southern Illinois. At the opening of the war he volunteered and rose to the rank of Major General. He had a distinguished war record that included commands at Vicksburg and at the Battle of Atlanta. He returned to Congress after the war and became involved in veteran affairs.
In 1866 he attended the first veteran’s memorial services at Woodlawn Cemetery, Carbondale, Illinois. The following year, in his capacity as the commander-in-chief of the Civil War veteran’s fraternal organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), he founded Memorial Day as a national holiday.
On 5 May 1868 he issued a proclamation to announce the start of a national, annual memorial day. The proclamation, which might be considered the first Memorial Day speech, explains why he thinks a national Memorial Day is important. His original idea was to remember the Union Civil War dead. Since then, Memorial Day has grown to include all American wars. Though his language represents the flowery style of the 19th century, I nevertheless hope his words still soar to inspire and enrich our thoughts, reflections, and memories this weekend.
General John A. Logan
I. 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.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice of neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.
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.
II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.
By order of
JOHN A. LOGAN,
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.