John Alexander Logan, 1826-1886

John Alexander Logan and his family, from the Library of Congress

The story of John Alexander Logan, a southern Illinois lawyer and politician who rose to the rank of major general during the Civil War and became the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1884, traces a remarkable shift in philosophy.

Born in what is now Murphysboro to a country physician and former enslaver in 1826, “Black Jack” Logan began his statewide political career as a populist Democrat in the Illinois legislature. During his first session in 1853, Logan worked to defeat a bill granting Black people the right to testify in court and proposed and passed a bill to prevent free Black people from migrating to Illinois. Known as “Logan’s Black Law”, it imposed a fifty-dollar fine on Black newcomers who stayed in Illinois longer than ten days. Those who could not pay would be auctioned off as indentured servants.

Logan was elected to the House of Representatives in 1858, endorsing the pro-enslavement notion of popular sovereignty in the territories advanced by Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Despite his pro-southern views, Logan joined the Union Army during the Civil War to “save the Union”.

Harper’s magazine illustration by Theodore R. Davis depicting General Logan rallying the troops at the Battle of Dallas, May 28, 1864

Civil War Service

1861, Logan leapt into action as a civilian volunteer with the 2nd Michigan. Afterward, he formed the 31st Illinois, becoming its colonel. Logan led the regiment at the battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, and Fort Donelson, where he suffered broken ribs and was shot though his shoulder. Responding to an erroneous report of his death, his wife Mary raced to Cairo, Illinois, where she learned that he was alive aboard the steamer Uncle Sam, the headquarters of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. After Mary nursed him back to health, Logan was promoted to brigadier general and returned to the front as a brigade commander in the Seventeenth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.

A natural and daring military leader, Logan was a major general by March, 1863, leading with distinction during the campaign to capture Vicksburg. Receiving command of the Fifteenth Corps on October 27, 1863, Logan earned recognition for his leadership during the Atlanta campaign in 1864. After Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson was killed in the Battle of Atlanta, Logan temporarily commanded the Army of the Tennessee, achieving victory. However, trusting only in career military men, Gen. William T. Sherman replaced Logan with West Point graduate Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. After campaigning for Abraham Lincoln, Logan was once again given command of the Army of the Tennessee in May, 1865, leading it in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C.

Support for African American Rights

While serving during the Civil War, Logan experienced a change of heart and reversed his stance on Black people and enslavement. In 1865, Logan spoke in Louisville, Kentucky, in favor of ratifying the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish enslavement in the United States. Blaming the Civil War on enslavement, Logan asked how “any mortal man [could] desire to see such a cause of sorrow and suffering, injury and infamy, hypocrisy and hate” perpetuated in the United States, imploring them “to strike at once and deal [enslavement] a death blow” that liberty might be proclaimed “to the end of the earth”.

In 1866, Logan supported passage of the 14th amendment granting citizenship to blacks. At a gathering of Union veterans in Salem, Illinois, he remarked that the bravery of Black people during the Civil War had removed his prejudices and asserted that the 14th amendment would give them “the protection of the law”. He argued that “any Christian people” and any government should grant citizenship to all residents. However, as he had in Louisville, Kentucky, Logan promised that the 14th amendment would not give Black people the right to “enjoy the privilege of voting or holding office”. That same year he switched political parties, reentering politics as a Radical Republican and vigorously supporting equal rights for America’s formerly enslaved people.

By 1867, Logan was arguing for Black voting rights. In speeches across Ohio supporting Black suffrage, he challenged opponents to “give a reason why the Negro should not vote”, stating “I don’t care whether a man is black, red, blue, or white”, he has the right to choose the men who “control the Government”. The 15th amendment, which prohibits denying a citizen’s right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” was ratified in 1870.

Memorial Day

Logan’s most enduring legacy was his creation of Memorial Day as a national holiday in 1868. Endeavoring to support Union war veterans, Logan helped establish the fraternal Grand Army of the Republic. As its first Commander-in-Chief, Logan declared May 30 to be a day for decorating the graves of Union soldiers “who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion” and called for annual observance in his General Order No. 11, May 5, 1868. Although this was not the first time war graves had been decorated, Logan's order established what we now call Memorial Day as the day upon which Americans pay tribute to all their war casualties, missing-in-action, and deceased veterans. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971.

1884 Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee

Although his record of antebellum legislation against Black rights continued to draw criticism, Logan was endorsed in 1884 as the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party, a choice strongly endorsed by African American statesman Frederick Douglass.

Pyrric Victory Puck Logan centerfold.jpg
The pyrrhic victory of the Mulligan guards in Maine by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine, assailing the 1884 Republican presidential ticket of James G. Blaine and John A. Logan, and criticizing support from Frederick Douglass, from the Library of Congress

Highly honored at his untimely death, Senator Logan lay in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda during the last two days of 1886.


Special thanks to P. Michael Jones, director of the General John A. Logan Museum, for contributing information about the history of John A. Logan.