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Fallen soldier's connection to Memorial Day was a personal one

The Maj. Gen. John A. Logan Mausoleum at the United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., is seen in 2019. Logan is credited with starting the tradition that has become Memorial Day.

ELIZABETH FRASER/U.S. ARMY

By JOHN KELLY | The Washington Post | Published: May 24, 2020

On the morning of Nov. 14, 1899, messages were delivered to the two most important women in John A. Logan Jr.’s life. A telegram arrived at his wife’s house in Youngstown, Ohio, and a note was delivered to his mother’s house in Washington, D.C.

It was a painful ritual as old as the country.

The news was dire enough — and Logan important enough — that special circumstances applied. The president himself, William McKinley, had sent the telegram to Edith Logan in Ohio: “It is my painful duty to convey to you the sad intelligence of the death of your husband while gallantly leading his battalion in the charge at San Jacinto.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the governor of New York, would send one, too. “Please accept the deepest and most heartfelt sympathy of Mrs. Roosevelt and myself,” it read. “Your husband has left to his children the priceless legacy of a hero’s death.”

John A. Logan Jr. was an unusual soldier. He had attended West Point for two years but left before graduating. He married into a wealthy Ohio family. Though he had no soldiering experience, at the start of the Spanish-American War, Logan was able to gain an officer’s commission and he saw action in Cuba.

When that conflict ended, he rolled right into the next: the Philippine-American War, where U.S. forces were engaged in beating down a rebellion by native Filipinos. If some in the military questioned the 34-year-old’s meteoric rise, no one could say that he shrank from confrontation.

On Nov. 11, 1899, Maj. Logan was walking point with his battalion of the 33rd Regiment. Enemy forces — 1,200 strong — were said to be gathering at San Jacinto. The Americans were eager to confront them.

It had rained heavily, leaving the terrain a morass of overflowing creeks and sodden rice fields. Soldiers moved through canebrakes and tall grass, the mud waist-deep in places. The column had advanced 2 miles when a corporal near Logan was felled by a bullet.

Logan leaned over the injured man only to be shot through the head, just above the temple. As Logan slumped over, mortally wounded, a hospital steward moved forward to drag him to the side of the road. The steward was shot dead.

Snipers were hidden in nearby coconut trees, aiming at Americans who had chevrons on their uniforms: those of higher rank.

A Gatling gun was dragged to the front by hand — the mud was too thick for horses — and began shredding the treetops. The battle raged for two hours. Six families besides Logan’s would receive telegrams in the coming days informing them of the deaths of loved ones.

The note delivered Nov. 14 to Logan’s mother, Mary Logan, had come from the secretary of war, Elihu Root. Mrs. Logan immediately hurried to the War Department, “very much agitated,” according to the Evening Star.

She entered a building that must have seemed familiar to her. The War Department building was designed by the same architect — Alfred B. Mullett — who had designed her late husband’s mausoleum, which stands on the grounds of the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home off North Capitol Street.

And it is the man inside that mausoleum — John A. Logan Sr. — whom we can credit for Memorial Day.

The elder Logan was a U.S. representative from Illinois who rushed to Bull Run to fight as a volunteer in the Civil War. He then resigned his seat and organized volunteers from his home state. While other so-called political generals were tolerated, Major Gen. Logan was beloved, ably commanding the Army of the Tennessee during the Battle of Atlanta.

“I think you probably can say he was considered one of the finest politicians who became a general during the Civil War,” said Stephen Carney, command historian at Arlington National Cemetery.

After the Civil War, Logan headed up the organization of former Union soldiers known as the Grand Army of the Republic. It was in this capacity that he issued General Orders No. 11, decreeing that “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.”

The elder Logan died in 1886. Mary, his widow, followed his request that he be buried at the Soldier’s Home. Today, about 13,400 veterans are buried there, nearly all under those familiar white stones. Logan rests in a Romanesque revival tomb.

“I think what distinguishes it as a little gem is that it has great detailing, such as the semicircular arch over the entrance and the carving of his initials into the keystone. And the rose windows on both sides of the gable are really nice,” said Rebecca L. Stevens, cultural resource manager for Arlington National Cemetery. “And it’s built for the ages, with a granite roof and granite walls. It was meant to last a long time and it has.”

On Feb. 7, 1900, 14 years after his father’s death, the body of John Logan Jr. was borne through the streets of Youngstown and laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery. He had, an observer wrote, “sacrificed his all for the flag in which his inanimate remains were wrapped.”

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