During a passionate Facebook “discussion,” I was informed John A. Logan did not create Memorial Day; Columbus, Georgia, did.
I did not debate this statement, as neither the Gen. John A. Logan Museum’s exhibit nor its website make this claim.
Both state Logan established Memorial Day as a national holiday by issuing General Order No. 11 [his “Memorial Day Order”] to the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5, 1868.
This order stated that May 30 was to be “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” The origin of the holiday is not as clear.
In its online “Memorial Day History,” the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states, “Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day.” It names only seven: Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Columbus, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois; and Waterloo, New York.
In May 1895, the Illinois State Register stated that despite Memorial Day’s origin being “shrouded in mystery,” the “best authorities” believe it originated in Columbus, Georgia.
The debate continued four decades later. In 1937, columnist Elmo Scott Watson examined the holiday’s origin in the syndicated column “Who Gave Us Memorial Day?”
In her 1913 autobiography, Mary Logan, John A. Logan’s widow, named Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, as the inspiration for Logan issuing his “Memorial Day Order.”
The debate continues into the 21st century, where perhaps the best (or at least the longest) online list of Memorial Day origins can be found on the University of Mississippi’s “Center for Civil War Research” website.
It seems the 1895 Illinois State Register’s statement that Memorial Day’s origin is “shrouded in mystery” still rings true. If so, is the conclusion of the “best authorities,” who believe that Memorial Day originated in Columbus, Georgia, also true?
It is, according to Daniel Bellware of Columbus, Georgia, who, with Richard Gardiner, Ph.D., published “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America” in 2014.
This book provides primary sources showing on March 10, 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus published a letter inviting the women of the South to join them on April 26, 1866, and annually thereafter, in “adorning the graves of our fallen soldiers.”
This letter is known to have appeared in 20 Southern and five Northern newspapers. Between April and June 1866, communities in every Southern state (Macon observed its first Memorial Day on April 26) held a Memorial Day observation.
It seems to me Bellware and Gardiner’s extensive research has finally solved the “mystery” of Memorial Day’s origin.
The sources I found provide evidence that not only did Memorial Day observances begin in the South, but news of these observations was carried widely in Northern papers in 1866. For years thereafter, these same newspapers would reference not only this fact but also credited these observances to the women of Columbus, Georgia.
I also believe their work does not diminish the roles played by the other communities who are a part of the Memorial Day story.
These communities should celebrate their part in our nation’s history; it is not a competition. Perhaps the fact that it is provides the reason that Memorial Day’s 1968 centennial was not honored with a commemorative stamp.
It is my hope that if this competition can be put aside, it will receive such an honor in 2018, the sesquicentennial of this very meaningful holiday.
• P. Michael Jones is director of the Gen. John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro.