Almost two dozen communities claim the honor of having observed the first Memorial Day. An encounter in a cemetery underlies each of their stories. Thus began the story of John A. Logan and Carbondale, Illinois’ first observance of Memorial
On April 16, 1866 Civil War veterans sitting on the steps of Crab Orchard Christian Church just west of Carbondale, Illinois waited for their pastor. Glancing toward Hiller Cemetery they saw the widow and children of a fallen comrade placing flowers on his unmarked grave. After the family departed, the men gathered wild flowers and decorated the graves of the other veterans buried there. They shared their belief with veterans in Carbondale that a larger, more organized event to honor their fallen comrades was needed. Together they decided to hold a community-wide Memorial Day observance at Carbondale’s Woodlawn Cemetery on April 29, 1866.
On that day 212 veterans gathered at the Cemetery. Among them was Major General John A. Logan who had been asked to give the keynote address. There Logan told his audience that, “Every man’s life belongs to his country, and no man has a right to refuse when his country calls for it.” The events of the day were recorded by James Green, the sextant of Woodlawn Cemetery and Logan’s first cousin.
Two years later, in March 1868, Mary Logan visited the battlefields around Petersburg, Virginia. While there she visited Blandford Cemetery where she saw wilted flowers and small tattered flags decorating the graves of fallen Confederate veterans. When Mary returned to Washington told John about what she had seen. She suggested the North should also honor its fallen soldiers in a similar manner.
Plaques honoring John A. Logan’s “Memorial Day Order” can be found from Boston to Los Angeles. They were placed from 1920 to the late 1930s. There is no record of how many of these markers were placed or their locations.
The first seems to be the marble tablet at the Memorial Amphitheater which was dedicated in May 1920 at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.
The earliest bronze marker found to date is in the Bob Hope Memorial Hall in Los Angeles, California and was dedicated May 30, 1927. The latest known marker, dedicated April 12, 1939, is in Woodlawn Cemetery, Miami, Florida.