Mary Logan’s Courage during the Civil War

Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan

The American Civil War is typically romanticized in terms of men’s sacrifice and heroism, as “brother fighting against brother”, soldiers’ letters conveying disillusionment and the hardship of separation from their families. But women also faced danger and played many vital roles. Some officers’ wives accompanied their husbands in camp, and some women served as spies and nurses, but most were tasked with preserving homes and angrily divided families in the face of unscrupulous profiteers.

Mary Simmerson Cunningham was seventeen when attorney John A. Logan asked for her hand in marriage in 1855. Her father had become friends with Logan during the Mexican War. Though young, Mary proved to be courageous and resourceful as a wife and mother. During their three decades together, Mary supported her husband as he progressed in war and politics to become the Republican vice presidential nominee in the election of 1884. Following her husband’s untimely death in 1886, Mary became a journalist and writer to promote his legacy.

In her autobiography, Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife, Mary Logan describes the anxiety she felt as civil war loomed. In Washington with her husband, who was serving as a newly elected congressman from Illinois, Mary witnessed the tense inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath:

Men of affairs moved about with grave countenances, absorbed with the awful thought that a civil war was inevitable. We remember perfectly the arrival of Mr. Lincoln in Washington, and the relief it was to know that nothing had befallen him en route, and with what tense anxiety many watched every move of the most violent secessionists all Inauguration Day. ... For days hope and fear, security and doubt, succeeded each other in the public and private mind. Nominations for the Cabinet were sent in and were, of course, considered firebrands to the South, whose representatives one by one departed from the city and began their work all over the South for the establishment of the Confederacy. Each day some prominent member or senator failed to answer the roll-call. [79]

Returning to Southern Illinois, Mary served her husband as protector and courier as he raised the 31st Illinois Infantry. Recalling her husband’s concern as he prepared to speak before a growing crowd in Marion, August 19, 1861, Mary wrote:

When the hour arrived, he came to me and begged me on no account to go into the street. He felt that there might be trouble, and assured me he should be unnerved if he thought I was in the crowd, should mob violence seize the half-crazed people. I gave my promise with a mental reservation not to keep it; as I determined to be near him whatever happened, thinking by a disguise in dress and keeping behind him (as he was to speak in a wagon in the public square) that I could watch the actions of one or two persons who had made threats of a personal assault upon him should he declare for war or attempt to raise a regiment. I felt sure I could at least scream should they move toward him with evil intent.

I waited until he was gone and soon followed, keeping out of his sight, but where I could see him and every movement made toward him. I trembled in every limb, my head swam, and I dared not speak to any one, though surrounded by acquaintances who once were friends. [97]

Mary also describes the challenging winter campaign to capture forts in Tennessee:

[From Cairo the] transports set sail in a pitiless storm of snow and sleet. … The storms of the winter of 1861-2 were unprecedented…. Everything was covered with ice and snow; night and day a raw, cold wind blew such bitter blasts that men and animals could scarcely stand against its force. … More than one of the brave men in the siege [of Fort Donelson] died from the exposure they experienced. Their clothing was frozen on them. Officers and men fared alike during the entire siege of Fort Donelson, and there was little respite for either. Colonel Logan was in the saddle almost continuously, taking only brief rests by lying down on the ground with his saddle under his head, and over him his saddle-blanket, which was frozen when he rose to mount his horse again. From this exposure he contracted rheumatism from which he never recovered, and which finally cost him his life. So near the fortifications were they that they did not dare to build fires by which to warm themselves or cook anything to eat.

… The Telegraph announced that Fort Donelson had fallen February 15, 1862, and also gave a list of the killed and wounded; in the list of killed appeared the names of Colonel John A. Logan, Lieutenant-Colonel John H. White, four captains of the 31st Regiment of Illinois, and a great number of the men, all of whom I knew personally.

… On receipt of the overwhelming news of my husband’s death, I started at once for Cairo, Illinois, determined, if it were possible, to go to Fort Donelson at all hazards…. On my arrival at Cairo I learned that Colonel Logan was not killed, but was severely wounded, news which made me all the more anxious to join him. … [122-3]

Mary obtained passage on steamer traveling from Cairo to Fort Donelson, where she was recognized by officers and welcomed aboard Grant’s headquarters, the steamer Uncle Sam, where Colonel Logan had been taken.

… For many days I continued my constant vigil over Colonels Ransom and Logan, as serious complications in both cases set in, and it required the surgeon’s best skill to save them. [127]


Logan, Mary Simmerson Cunningham. 1997. Reminiscences of a soldier's wife: an autobiography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.