Illinois Civil War Gen. John Logan made Memorial Day a national holiday. Before that, it’s complicated.

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For a guy known for giving us Memorial Day, Gen. John A. Logan is not much remembered in these parts.

Sure, protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention famously climbed all over the statue of Logan on horseback in Grant Park, but there were so many of them in perhaps the most iconic image that you could hardly see the sculpture subject. And who he was and what he represented wasn’t really the point in that moment.

And, yes, Logan Square is named for the mid-19th-century politician and Union Civil War general. It’s a fitting tribute because although Logan lived elsewhere in the city during his Chicago residential tenure, he maintained a fulsome mustache that would fit right in with the conspicuous facial hair favored by many a modern Logan Square dude.

But even though the Downstate native is one of only three people mentioned in the Illinois state song, alongside Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant (and “our tears”), Logan is not a man whose biography jumps to the mind of the average or even the learned Prairie State resident.

“John A. Logan may be the most noteworthy nineteenth century American to escape notice in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” Civil War historian Gary Ecelbarger said, a quote chosen to head the section on Logan’s legacy on the website of the General John A. Logan Museum, located in his hometown of Murphysboro.

“Some of the conflicting or varied threads in his life remind us that history is really complicated,” says Kate Masur, a Northwestern University historian who has written about Logan in her studies of the early African American Civil Rights movement.

The Logan statue in Grant Park, for instance, is one of the 41 under consideration by the city’s Chicago Monuments Project, dedicated to examining exactly who is granted such civic pride of place. (Dating to just before the turn of the last century, it is also one of the more artistically successful, with the figure of Logan sculpted by the celebrated American classicist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.)

“I’ve been asked to talk about some of these monuments,” says Masur, author of “Until Justice Be Done: American’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction.” “And, obviously, there’s been a lot of focus on the Lincoln ones and some focus on, like, Grant and McKinley. And nobody has asked me a question about the John Logan statue until you just did.”

The most profound complications in Logan’s life stem from his journey on the question of the rights of Black people in America.

Prewar, he was a Stephen A. Douglas Democrat from a slaveholding family far Downstate and the point man in the Illinois legislature, Masur says, for an overtly racist law that prohibited Black people from migrating to the state.

“It was known widely as the Logan Law. That was its nickname,” Masur says of the 1853 legislation. She found in Logan’s papers in the Library of Congress a speech he gave on its behalf. “Examine history down from our first account of the negroe (sic) and we find them not suited to be placed upon a level with the white man,” Logan wrote.

But postwar he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate as a Republican, and not just a rank-and-file Republican. This, remember, was the days when “Republican” signified the party of Lincoln and progressivism and Democrats were often the conservatives.

“He was considered among the radicals — so the most kind of pro-African American rights and pro-Reconstruction Republicans in the Senate,” says John Mark Hansen, a University of Chicago political science professor who came to Logan when looking into the history of the South Side, where Logan lived in the 1870s.

Indeed, during his House tenure, Logan was to President Andrew Johnson what California congressman Adam Schiff was to President Donald Trump during the latter’s first impeachment trial. “When the House impeached Andrew Johnson, he was one of the House managers during the impeachment trial, which was basically the radicals pursuing their complaints with Johnson,” Hansen says.

Logan’s was apparently a kind of battlefield conversion, and not dissimilar, says Hansen, to the one Grant went through.

The historical timeline from the Logan Museum says that Logan “detested” Lincoln at the time of his presidential election, “as he did all abolitionists.”

But three years later, it continues, “Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 which Logan accepted as necessary. His attitudes toward slavery and African Americans had changed. He urged Union soldiers to accept the recruitment of African American volunteers.”

Despite being a “political general,” one who got a command post by raising troops, Logan served admirably, according to many accounts, and it was Grant who got him promoted from colonel to major general.

Logan was elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat in 1858 and 1860, leaving to take his Union Army command post. When he returned to that body it was as a Republican.

“This was a very different Logan,” the museum timeline says. “It was a Logan who voted for Constitutional amendments to abolish slavery and to grant citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. Logan served a second term in the U.S. House before moving on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate. Throughout this time Logan continued to fight for civil rights for America’s former slaves and supported Women’s Suffrage.”

This history of darkness moving into light will surely complicate Chicago’s discussion of the Logan Memorial sculpture, especially as the memorial project’s official website underplays the prominence of Logan’s role in the anti-Black legislation. “He allied with Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and participated in legislation directed towards halting black migration and settlement in Illinois,” it says.

“The best outcome,” says Masur, “of this discussion about monuments in a way would be that we, in general, come to know more about our history and understand the conflicting and sometimes not admirable aspects of the people who are memorialized on the landscape. And also that we add more monuments.”

Meanwhile, there was the matter of Memorial Day. In addition to being in Congress, Logan in 1868 began serving as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a kind of Veterans Administration precursor for former Union soldiers. In his first year in that post, he called for Decoration Day to be a national holiday honoring the nation’s war dead by placing flowers on their graves.

The date he picked, May 30 — reportedly because it was when flowers were in bloom and was not the anniversary of any specific battle — was the national holiday from 1868 through 1970. Beginning in 1971 Memorial Day (the name supplanted Decoration Day over time) became an official federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May.

A 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Logan stated the holiday was “an idea which probably originated with him.”

But its true origins are democratic and, seemingly, grassroots. Following the horrific war local commemorations of the departed took place all over the country, often with a civic ceremony and the laying of flowers upon graves.

“Logan had a lot of power and clout,” says Masur, the Northwestern history professor. “So when he puts his stamp on it and says, ‘From now on, this is going to be a national holiday,’ he just becomes very visible for doing that. But people had been commemorating the fallen from the Civil War even before that.”

Masur pointed in particular to Yale historian David Blight’s find, evidence in a Harvard archive of “the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day,” Blight wrote in a widely reprinted 2011 piece.

It was In Charleston, South Carolina, and the city’s Black residents had already reburied the Union soldiers who had died in a POW camp there. There, on May 1, 1865, three weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a parade of 10,000, led by 3,000 Black schoolchildren singing a Union marching song, commemorated the soldiers who had given their lives as “martyrs” for the cause of human freedom.

“The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic,” Blight wrote.

There was a collective power to this and the other commemorations. Still, it took Logan’s national platform and his popularity among the former Union troops to make these local efforts national. And his words echoed the sentiments of those African American Charleston residents.

“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,” Logan said in his proclamation to the fellow veterans of his organization. “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.”

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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