Promoting passion in book collecting
“Mary Logan is almost the model of an American woman…she has been her husband’s success.”
Mary Simmonson Cunningham was born on August 15, 1838 in Petersburg, Missouri. A veteran of the Mexican-American war, her father, John Cunningham was a US Marshal and later an Illinois state legislator, so the family had the means to send their children to school. Mary’s parents sent her to the Convent of St. Vincent’s in Kentucky, one of the best girls schools in the area. When she graduated, she returned to help her father, who was by then the registrar of the land office in Shawneetown, Illinois.
It was there that Mary met John A. Logan, a prosecuting attorney who had served under her father in the Mexican-American War. The two were married on November 27, 1855. Mary was only seventeen years old, but she was well prepared for life as a politician’s wife, proving an exemplary helpmate to her husband. John Logan would serve for ten years in the House of Representatives and thirteen more in the Senate. During this time, Mary assisted her husband by relieving him of correspondence, handling his affairs, and managing their home while John was away in Washington, DC. She served as an able intermediary between John and his constituents back in southern Illinois.
Mary was an outspoken abolitionist. Raised in a slave-owning home, she’d witnessed the horrors of the institution and lamented the damage caused when slave families were sold away from one another. When she received a slave as a wedding gift in 1855, Mary granted the woman her freedom so that she could try to reunite with her family.
Then after the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary’s 22-year-old brother Hilbert Cunningham joined the Confederacy. Mary said of his decision, “He was devoted to Mr. Logan and me; yet in a moment of mad impulse, characteristic of the time, he placed himself in the attitude of the enemy to his own kindred.” The move did more than divide the Cunningham family; it forced John Logan’s constituents to question his alliances–especially because his wife so often acted as his go-between.
Mary told her husband that tensions were running high; hostility was growing not only about the war, but also toward President Lincoln. She urged John to return home. John went a step further: he sought permission to form and lead a new regiment for the Union Army. He then went to Marion, Illinois to recruit volunteers to fight at his side. John entreated Mary not to attend his speech; he feared that a riot would break out and he would be unable to protect her. Mary acquiesced–but she attended the speech anyway in disguise.
Mary had also used her own political weight for her husband’s cause. Unbeknownst to John, she’d convinced a few influential men to join the new regiment. When John stood up to declare his loyalty to the Union and enlist supporters, he was moved when a number of prominent men immediately pledged their support. Mary wept with joy at his speech, “for my husband had won, and my bit of stage managing had succeeded.” She considered his speech that day the best of his career.
John took his new 31st regiment to Cairo, Illinois. Their camp had only provisional supplies, and there was not even a hospital. Soon the unsanitary conditions had bred disease. Something had to be done. John seized a small hotel to use as a hospital, while Mary went back to Marion and Carbondale to gather supplies. In less than two days, she’d managed to gather all the necessary supplies, along with plenty of luxury items like brightly colored quilts. The hospital was so well outfitted, it earned the nickname “The Striped Hospital of the Thirty-First Regiment.” Meanwhile John earned the nickname “Black Jack Logan” during the war because of his dark hair and swarthy appearance. By now a general, he was considered an excellent officer by both his colleagues and those who served under him.
Following the Civil War, John returned to Capitol Hill, this time taking Mary with him. Mary frequently met with other politicians’ wives, and was respected among both men and women of Washington, DC. She also managed to prevent her husband from falling victim to his own impetuosity. When John was invited to run as James Blaine’s Vice President on the 1884 Democratic presidential ticket, his immediate reaction was to scoff. But Mary convinced him to pursue the opportunity and to maintain harmony in the political party.
John passed away rather unexpectedly on December 26, 1886, leaving behind his wife and two grown children. Mary was not yet fifty years old, but her husband’s death so affected her, she nearly died herself. Once she recovered, Mary again threw herself into public service, tirelessly campaigning for women’s suffrage and other worthy causes. She began editing Home Magazine, which she also wrote columns for. Meanwhile, Mary contributed semi-weekly columns for syndication in William Randolph Hearst’s magazines, including Cosmopolitan. The Cosmo columns were later compiled and published as Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife: An Autobiography (1913).
In 1901, Mary edited Thirty Years in Washington; Or, Life and Scenes in Our National Capital. The book’s drop title included “Sketches of Presidents and Their Wives, and of All the Famous Women Who Have Reigned in the White House.” The book, which highlighted women’s contributions to the American political scene, was a brilliant and subtle way to advocate for women’s suffrage; the book highlighted all the ways that women already contributed to government. In 1910, Mary co-authored The Part Taken by Women in American History with her daughter. When Mary died at age 87, she left behind a wonderful double legacy of both political activism and domestic management.