Historical Memorial Day

(L to R; Top to Bottom) Dr. Benjamin Stephenson, Gen. Dan Butterfield, Gen. John A. Logan, Oliver Wilcox Norton.

Did you know that several Memorial Day traditions have connections with the Land of Lincoln? 

Memorial Day used to be known as Decoration Day in the days and years following the Civil War up through 1970, before legislation changed the holiday to Memorial Day, starting in 1971.

John A. Logan, born and raised around Murphysboro, Illinois, and had a brilliant military career in the Civil War, eventually earning the title of general in the Union Army. Logan commanded all of the Union forces at the famous Battle of Atlanta.

He also led Illinois’ participation in arguably its first observance of what would become known as Decoration Day in 1866, at a cemetery in Carbondale, a year after the end of the Civil War.

But more importantly, he was the person who, on March 3rd , of 1868, issued General Order No. 11, which called for a national day of remembrance for the Civil War dead. This order, according to many historians, served as the basis of Decoration Day, becoming Memorial Day as we know it today.

One year after the Civil War had ended, another man from Illinois took it upon himself to form an organization that would serve as a unified voice for veterans of the Civil War; it was called the Grand Army of the Republic, or the G.A.R. Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson was the founder, who was born in Wayne County and went on to receive his medical degree from Rush College in Chicago before joining the ranks of the Union Army.

His concern after the Civil War was to form a society that would allow the men and boys who served to continue to meet at least once a year at a national gathering, or “encampment,” while serving their needs and that of their communities the rest of the year at their local post.

The GAR was specifically charged with overseeing Decoration Day activities by General John A. Logan in his General Order No.11. The first GAR post was formed in downstate Decatur.

The GAR was officially dissolved in 1964, following the death of its last surviving Civil War veteran. As a matter of fact, U.S. Route#6 is also known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, in honor of all Civil War Veterans.

Up until 1964 U.S.#6 was the longest highway to cross the U.S., from Massachusetts to Long Beach, California.

Taps, which is often heard at military funerals and on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, came about during the Civil War too. The bugler given credit for its first-ever performance was Oliver Willcox Norton.

As a youngster, Oliver was living and being raised in Sycamore.

Oliver’s father was a minister of the First Congregational Church in the 1840’s. But because some parishioners opposed Rev. Norton’s strong anti-slavery position, he and his family eventually moved back to New York state, from whence they came. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Oliver was a teacher in Pennsylvania, and he became a bugler in a company under the direction of his commander, General Dan Butterfield.

Both men sought a more melodious tune to be played at “lights out,” meaning, time to go to sleep. Norton formed the tune by

sounding his commander’s name through his bugle; “Dan, Dan, Dan;But-ter-field, But-ter-field, But-ter-field.”

The catchy, 24-note song spread to many other Union and Confederate camps as the universal call to “extinguish lights” and was often referred to as “Butterfield’s Lullaby.”

Interestingly enough, after the Civil War, Norton joined his younger brother in a canning factory venture and later formed "The American Can Company," which was located in suburban Maywood, Illinois. In 1935, his company perfected the first-ever can of beer; which continues to be quite popular at this time of the year.