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Posted on Oct 14, 2005 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Black Jack Logan – An Extraordinary Life in Peace and War – Book Review

By Richard N Story

Black Jack Logan: An Extraordinary Life in Peace and War
Gary Ecelbarger
The Lyons Press, 2005

Some people are born to greatness. Others have greatness shoved upon them. Still others reinvent their self into greatness. John A. “Black Jack” Logan reinvented himself not once, but twice into greatness, and nearly within a cat’s whiskers distance from the White House when he died prematurely from what was described as cerebral rheumatism. To the modern person, John A. Logan’s life and premature death is un-remarked upon as the national tragedy that it was seen as during his days. Who was John A. Logan and why did his death stun a reunited nation?


John A. Logan was born February 9th, 1826 to Dr. John Logan in southern Illinois. That part of Illinois was southern in leanings and practices which did include slavery and indentured servitude. Growing up, John had inherited his father’s abilities as a judge of horses, but also as a jockey who would ride horses in large-stake races. He also exhibited a fiery temper that would last his entire life. Another trait that he inherited was the ability to make bad investments that would forever keep him searching for ways to reduce and pay off his debts. John’s first foray into the public eye was as a Second Lieutenant in Company H, First Illinois Infantry during the Mexican-American War under Colonel Edward W.B. Newby with his Captain being John M. Cunningham. Captain Cunningham teased his young subordinate that if John became a war hero, he would allow John to marry his precocious and pretty 8 year old daughter Mary. John never did see battle with the 1st Illinois as they were stationed at Santa Fe for the duration, but he did survive the outbreak of the flu that claimed nine members of the regiment.

Returning home, John entered the law profession where he quickly gained local fame as well as political power. John worked both sides of the court not only as a defense attorney, but also as a prosecuting attorney. His abilities as an attorney were so good that he had a man freed by his appeal that he had convicted as a district attorney! But politics soon entered his life and he won seats both in the Illinois Senate and later on the United States Senate as a Democrat. As John garnered prominence, he went back to his old Captain and wooed and won the hand and heart of Mary Cunningham. She would be the bedrock of his life till the end of her days. His pro-southern viewpoint was reflected by his constituency and he advocated reconciliation with the south and despised and even hated abolitionists. One of John’s greatest abilities was his ability to make rousing speeches that fired the imagination and enthusiasm of the audience. It can be said that John had a Churchillian or even Hitler-like ability to mesmerize and convince an audience. But the firing on Fort Sumter by Confederate forces under P.G.T. Beauregard would change John and the United States forever.

Like Pearl Harbor and the later 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centers, Fort Sumter galvanized all Americans. Those in the north rose to protect the Union while the south celebrated the first real steps of independency. But those in the southern parts of Illinois were looked on with distrust and suspicion by the rest of the north because of its pro-southern attitudes. John might have been pro-southern, but he was a patriot first and would defend the Union if not actively seeking to end slavery. He started out by raising a regiment of volunteers that became the 31st Illinois Infantry Regiment. This caused a family crisis in which his own mother refused to speak to him or acknowledge him till near the end of her life; his sister hated him till her dying days and his own brother-in-law joined the Confederate Army. But if the war ruined his family life, it redeemed his own reputation as he went on to be a great leader who took risks and drove his troops steadily forward toward victory.

But the war also sent his way meetings with two people who would change his life forever. The first was Ulysses S. Grant, who asked John to speak to his regiment (21st Illinois) to prevent them from deserting as it switched from a 3 month volunteer regiment to a 3 year war regiment. John’s rousing speech was successful and reinvigorated the regiment, impressing Grant. It could be argued that John’s speech, which gave Grant an opportunity to command, might have saved the Union. The one other person whom John would play a pivotal role for was Abraham Lincoln. John despised Lincoln as an abolitionist, but after seeing how slaves were treated, John became a firm abolitionist himself. So great a friend of the Union did John become, and acknowledging his speaking power, he was pulled from the line in late 1864 to go back to Illinois to stump in the southern part of the state for Lincoln. And with that election the Republicans took southern Illinois for the first time. Still, John had some problems with General Sherman. John felt that Sherman looked down on him because of the lack of attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. Despite the friction between the commanding General of the Army of the Tennessee and the XVth Corps Commander, both brought the war to a successful conclusion. In his last act in the Union Army John was promoted to Command of the Army of the Tennessee, and lead that unit in the grand victory parade in Washington, D.C. He resigned the next day to return to politics.

John returned to the U.S. Senate and was a firm opponent of leniency toward the south. But as his political star waxed, waned and then rose again, so did his personal life. Financial troubles plagued him constantly with bad dealings and bad press, even when shady deals were made that didn’t involve him. His belief in the patronage system was attacked, but despite all this John persevered. He also became a leading advocate of black rights for the freed slaves. Freeman Douglass became a friend of his. Perhaps John’s most lasting impact was his affiliation of the Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s organization. As the president of the organization he instituted a day to remember the Union soldiers who fell in battle in the Civil War. Later it would be expanded to encompass all the honored dead from all wars the United States has fought as Memorial Day. Finally, John and the reviewer share a great passion in books. No matter how financially ailing he might be, John would always find the means to purchase the books that caught his eye. Even his wife Mary could not control that one impulse of his. John’s untimely death when he was one of the leading candidates for the Presidency of the United States from the Republican Party leaves a tantalizing question of how the United States would be today if he had become President.

Black Jack Logan: An Extraordinary Life in Peace and War was written by Gary Ecelbarger. It is a flawlessly written book with no grammatical or typographical errors. The illustrations in the book add to the text. It is very well researched and annotated. The book is a good read, and carries the reader along as the panoply of John’s life unfolds. The one part of the book that is open to criticism is the editorial decision to switch from using John’s childhood nickname of Jack in the book, to Logan, when John dropped Jack for his given name. It is understood the author did so to avoid confusing the reader with John’s father, but it does disservice to the reader to think they can not differentiate between the two men. It is felt that the author should have been consistent in his usage. Despite this one miniscule flaw, it is highly recommended for anybody who is interested in the Civil War, American politics, or American history in general. Weighing in at 381 pages and a list price of $22.95 (US), that works out to about 17 cents a page for a book about one of America’s most unsung heroes, and is worth every penny.