A Memorial to Memorial Day

Washington, D.C. has always been a special place to commemorate Memorial Day.

There’s the wreath laying and decorating of graves across the river at Arlington Cemetery, the parade down Constitution Avenue, the concert on the Mall, and tributes at the various war memorials. And there’s the omnipresent rumble of motorcycles as Rolling Thunder rides into town.

But if you venture beyond the Mall and into one of the District’s historic neighborhoods, you can pay tribute to the very beginnings of Memorial Day and the man who helped to start it all – General John A. Logan.

The wreath-laying at Logan Circle

His impressive statue is the centerpiece of Logan Circle, which is probably the most beautiful circle in the city. It’s also one of the most residential, and is more often the site of picnics, dog-walking, and bocce ball than official ceremonies.

But each year on Memorial Day there is a small but meaningful commemoration in the park, with a wreath laying at the base of the statue sponsored by the Logan Circle Community Association, the Illinois State Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Park Service. This year there was an Army Color Guard and a concert by a Marine Corps band.

There were also remarks by one of Logan’s biographers, which probably helped answer the question that even most Washingtonians would have to ask:

Who was General John A. Logan, and what does he have to do with Memorial Day?

General John A. Logan
General John A. Logan

The short answer is he was a favorite officer of General U.S. Grant’s during the Civil War, a Congressman and Senator from Illinois, and the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate in 1884. But what he is most remembered for today is an order he issued in 1868 as head of the Union Army’s veterans association.

It established May 30 as a day to commemorate the Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War by decorating their grave sites. It would become known as Decoration Day – and in the Twentieth Century, it would officially become Memorial Day, falling on the last Monday in May.

Growing up near Petersburg in southern Virginia, I was always told that Memorial Day had its origins at the historic Blandford Church, where women decorated the graves of the Confederate dead. I’m sure there were other communities around the country who paid tribute to their fallen soldiers in a similar way – but apparently Logan’s wife Mary visited the church in the spring of 1868 while touring the nearby battlefields.

She was impressed with the local custom, which she reported back to her husband. Soon after, Logan issued the order that would help establish Memorial Day as a time to remember fallen soldiers from all American wars.

Ironically, Logan himself has been mostly forgotten in D.C. and across the country, even though he was a widely known and popular figure at the time, and a prominent Washington resident.

He actually lived on Logan Circle a year before his death in 1886, which was then known as Iowa Circle. His grand statue was added to the park in 1901, and Congress officially changed the name to Logan Circle in 1930.

This Memorial Day you could also pay your respects to Logan with a special tour of his final resting place – he’s buried in a mausoleum in the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, which pre-dates Arlington as one of our country’s first national cemeteries.

So as we remember our fallen military men and women each May, now there’s no reason we can’t also remember John A. Logan too.


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