Future President James Garfield Served Here During Civil War

Monday, October 7, 2013 - by John Shearer
Gen. James Garfield during Civil War
Gen. James Garfield during Civil War

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles around Chattanooga and Chickamauga are being remembered this fall, local residents are recalling when the eyes of a nation were focused on the area.

But for at least three people who fought in the Civil War battles locally, the nation’s eyes would continue to be focused on them. The reason was that the three – Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield and Benjamin Harrison – each went on to become president of the United States.

Mr. Grant’s role as commanding general of the Union Army during the Chattanooga campaign and his ascension to the presidency less than four years later have obviously received plenty of attention over the years.

Mr. Garfield, on the other hand, has received less focus for his role as a supporting general at the Battle of Chickamauga, while Benjamin Harrison’s role as a lower-ranking officer at Chattanooga is even less known.

With that in mind, here is a look at Mr. Garfield’s career, with a glance at Mr. Harrison’s wartime visit later this fall.

Mr. Garfield was known during the Civil War and afterward for the respect his position and status carried, but that was not the case when he was young.

Raised on an Ohio farm by a widowed mother, who taught him the faith of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he grew up in somewhat humble conditions. However, he apparently was rich in resourcefulness and soon learned he needed to support himself to enjoy a quality life.

He was able to work his way through several schools, graduating in 1856 from Williams College in Massachusetts with a reputation as a skilled debater.

After being employed as a minister and educator, he eventually became a lawyer and grew interested in the Republican Party, gaining election as an Ohio state senator in 1859.

In the summer of 1861, he joined in the Civil War effort as a commander of the Union Army’s 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

He won praise for his regiment’s action at Middle Creek, Ky., in 1861 and was in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. As boldly focused on the battlefield as in life, he was one of the early Union officers to want to carry the war aggressively to the South.

For example, noticing that Major Gen. Henry Halleck was overly cautious while assisting him in an attack, he became distrustful of West Point training after the U.S. Military Academy-educated Gen. Halleck let Confederate Gen. P.T.G. Beauregard’s men escape.

Gen. Garfield would also have his own disappointments and failures. In late 1862 and early 1863, he kept waiting for orders for a new assignment, but it never came.

In the spring of 1863, however, he received a nice assignment of serving as chief of staff to Gen. William Rosecrans, commander of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland. They became close and discussed a variety of topics, including religion.

“They got along well,” said Scott Longert from the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. “But Garfield was someone who was very aggressive, and he thought the Army should be in the fight. But Rosecrans was more deliberate.”

Both in the fight against Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee near Tullahoma and later after driving Gen. Bragg out of Chattanooga, Gen. Rosecrans would be criticized for not continuing the fight. As a result, Gen. Bragg was able to get reinforcements in the form of Gen. James Longstreet’s forces.

“Everybody in Washington was very angry,” said Mr. Longert. “They wanted him (Rosecrans) to follow up very quickly.”

Gen. Bragg later attacked Gen. Rosecrans’ Army at the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20, 1863, with hopes of retaking Chattanooga, an important rail and manufacturing city at the time.

On the second day, an error in strategy by Gen. Rosecrans in moving troops left a hole in the center of the Union line. Thinking defeat was at hand, many of the Union troops then fled to Chattanooga in almost a panic.

Gen. Rosecrans and Gen. Garfield were also withdrawing when Gen. Garfield thought he heard some fighting still taking place. As it turned out, it was Gen. George Thomas’ men continuing on valiantly.

Gen. Rosecrans, who was suffering almost nervous exhaustion after the battle, went on to Chattanooga, but encouraged Gen. Garfield to return.

On the way back to the battlefield, Gen. Garfield’s horse was shot and his orderly was killed. While the incident almost claimed Gen. Garfield’s life, the story would give him new life in his political career.

“It helped him in Congress and when he ran for president,” said Mr. Longert, adding that Gen. Garfield mentioned the ride in a letter to his mother after the battle. “People remembered it.”

Gens. Garfield and Thomas went to Lookout Mountain after the Chickamauga battle and wired Gen. Rosecrans saying it was a good place to set up a defense. However, Gen. Rosecrans instead ordered them to Chattanooga, a move that turned out to be a mistake.

Shortly after Chickamauga, Gen. Garfield had also sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about the dire Union conditions in Chattanooga. As a result, reinforcements were later sent that would help the Union take control of the Chattanooga region two months later.

Some reinforcement was also sent in the form of a new leader to replace the relieved Gen. Rosecrans by Gen. Grant.  Gen. Garfield had earlier given a frank post-battle report to Sec. Stanton in Louisville, Ky., not knowing they were looking at replacing Gen. Rosecrans.

The comments caused Gen. Rosecrans to become angry with Gen. Garfield and bring about a cooling in their relationship. Gen. Grant and Gen. Garfield also had a slight falling out in their relationship after the former chose Gen. Thomas, not Gen. Garfield, to replace Gen. Rosecrans as head of the Army of the Cumberland.

Gen. Garfield did not stay around for the Chattanooga battles in November, as he was called back to Washington, D.C., and was promoted to major general. He had also been elected to Congress in 1862 primarily through the efforts of others.

So, with the wishes of President Abraham Lincoln, he began serving as an Ohio congressman, although he wanted to continue with his Army service.

After 18 years in Congress, Mr. Garfield became the only person to go from the U.S. House of Representatives to the presidency in 1881. He had been nominated as a compromise candidate during the Republican convention and defeated Democrat and fellow Civil War Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who was actually better known, in the general election.

In contrast to his years as a military officer, Mr. Garfield traveled little in his presidential  “front porch” campaign.

As a president, he was known as a pioneer in pushing for civil rights for blacks.

Unfortunately, before he could push through many of his policies, he was shot on July 2, 1881, by rejected and disillusioned federal office seeker Charles Guiteau in the now-razed Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad. At the time, he was on his way to speak at Williams College, his alma mater.

He did not recover and died while convalescing at a New Jersey Shore beach cottage, which has also been torn down. The date of death was Sept. 19, exactly 18 years after the first day of the Battle of Chickamauga.

Mr. Garfield’s presidency, like his wartime service, became unfinished work.


James Garfield as president
James Garfield as president

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