The life of a soldier is a parallel one, divided between the battlefield and the home. In combat, he is tough, but in peace, he is tender. In battle, he is brave, but when the war is won, he comes home to resume the life he knew…but always remembers his comrades in arms who never had that opportunity.
This is the Forgotten History of Black Jack’s Decorations.
General John Logan was a fighter. Sure, he was a politician, too, but when his nation called him to serve on the battlefield, he answered.
While in college, he fought in the Mexican-American War and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. When his service ended, he began a law practice and was elected county clerk before winning a race for the Illinois House of Representatives.
As the country inched closer to Civil War, he was elected to Congress.
But when the Union called again, he again answered, fighting in the Battle of Bull Run. When it became clear that the war effort would be a far more difficult, infinitely deadlier affair than most realized, he resigned his seat in Congress and became a colonel in the 31st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
He was a shrewd commander and a fierce fighter in battle, so much so that his men dubbed him “Black Jack” because of his jet black hair and mustache as well as his black heart when dealing with rebels on the battlefield. Black Jack was fearless, entering the fiercest fighting at the Battle of Belmont and narrowly escaping death when his horse was shot. At Fort Donelson, he was injured, but he kept fighting and rose to the rank of Brigadier General.
He fought in the Battle of Atlanta and briefly commanded Grant’s Army of the Tennesee and marched with William Tecumseh Sherman. Black Jack was a war hero and a legend to his men, but when the war ended and he returned to his political career, he was haunted by the memory of those who never got a chance to come home.
He thought of them constantly and, when he could, visited lonely graves in Illinois and Washington, DC. He was named second Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic and his political career flourished. He became a Senator and even a vice presidential candidate. But wherever his career took him, he visited those lonely graves and tried to think of a way to properly honor the sacrifice those men made.
Then inspiration struck: On one day a year, in late May when flowers were in bloom, the people of America would decorate those lonely graves. He issued a proclamation:
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 foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the 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.
And it was. All across the country, in cities, and villages and churchyard hamlets, Americans decorated the graves of the heroic fallen. It became an annual tradition known as Decoration Day and by 1890 was marked as a holiday across the northern states.
As the decades passed and more heroic dead lay in America’s cemeteries, the remembrance expanded to those who fell in all of the nation’s wars and Black Jack's Decoration Day was renamed to what we know it as today: Memorial Day.