Here’s one I’ve been waiting for for a while: Dan Vermilya’s new book James Garfield & The Civil War (History Press, 2015). Of course, I’m eyeball-deep in other stuff at the moment and can’t dig into the book like I want to—but it’s been sitting on the edge of the desk, tugging at my attention from the corner of my eye. Like Garfield himself, the book sits on the periphery yet holds such promise.
Since I can’t read the book at the moment, I did the next best thing: I called up Dan to talk to him it.
“Why Garfield?” I ask him.
“I like stories that don’t get a lot of attention, especially stories like Garfield’s,” Vermilya explains. “He’s one of the bearded presidents, lost in obscurity. People only know about him today because of his tragic assassination.”
Elected president in 1880, Garfield took office the following March. He actively served only four months; on July 2, Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in the back at a train station in D.C. “He lingered for months,” Vermilya says. It was a long, agonizing, infection-fevered death. Garfield finally succumbed on Sept. 19, 1881.
That’s the story people know about Garfield if they know anything. Several books recount it (which I’ve written about here). However, such accounts leave out “the historic chapter of his Civil War service,” Vermilya says. “It would be a disservice to focus only on his assassination. I want to tell people about this amazing part of his life story.”
Vermilya, who blogs at Our Country’s Fiery Ordeal and who works as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park, grew up in northeast Ohio, about twenty minutes away from the James Garfield National Historical Site. “As long as I can remember, it’s a place we always used to drive by. So I’ve always been interested in the guy,” Vermilya says.
As a grad student, he volunteered to do several talks on the Civil War for the site. There, he grew to admire Garfield.
“There were a lot of similarities between Garfield and Lincoln,” Vermilya says: “both had a parent die at an early age, both were raised in log cabins, both worked as laborers when they were young. You really can say Garfield is a man who rose up through hard work and made something of himself.”
However, he didn’t know much about Garfield’s Civil War career until he started research for the book. “Most books that focus on the assassination gloss over his Civil War service,” Vermilya explains. “But like everyone at the time who served, that was a major part of his life. For the rest of his life, the title of ‘General Garfield’ stayed with him.”
When the war broke out, Garfield was in his late 20s, serving as a state senator in Ohio. “He was a young man,” Vermilya says. “On the day Ft. Sumter surrendered, Garfield said, ‘I would rather lose a million men in battle than see the South win.’ He’s passionate about the future of the nation.”
During the war, Garfield found himself “right in the middle of key events of the Civil War: Shiloh, the Fitz John Porter trial, Chickamauga,” Vermilya explains. “He’s one of the principal architects of the Tullahoma campaign.”
There was also an ongoing controversy with William Rosecrans that boiled up from the fields of Chickamauga. “After Chickamauga, did he or did he not go behind Rosecrans’ back to get Rosecrans fired?” Vermilya summarizes. “Garfield’s frustrated, certainly, because he holds different views than Rosecrans regarding how the war should be fought, but he doesn’t actively work against Rosecrans.” But charges of Machiavellian behavior have dogged Garfield’s legacy ever since.
Much of that legacy is difficult to sort through. “When he campaigned for president, his war record was made larger than life,” Vermilya says. Strong political forces swept into play. Garfield’s martyrdom has also influenced memory.
“He was a guy with a lot of contradictions—a very complex man,” Vermilya says. “His life was controlled by passions.”
These are the reasons I’ve found Garfield to be so fascinating myself. “Garfield remains the mystery man,” said historian James Perry in his book Touched with Fire: Five Civil War Presidents and the Battles that Made Them—the book that first piqued my interest in Garfield. (Dave Powell recently wrote about his Garfield fascination, too.) Perry said of those Civil War-made presidents, “[Garfield] was probably the smartest of the lot; he was also the most devious.”
But Vermilya doesn’t buy into the Machiavellian image Garfield’s been saddled with. “I’m glad you used that word, ‘Machiavellian,’” he tells me. “I don’t believe that. He was complex, but he wasn’t conniving.”
I don’t keep Vermilya on the phone for long: he has a Garfield symposium he’s speaking at in Mentor, Ohio. I thank him for his time, his insights, and his preview.
Garfield, from the cover of the book, waits for me and watches.