There is an old joke that all it took to be President of the United States after the Civil War was membership in the Republican Party, a beard, and the title of Union veteran. James A. Garfield met all of these requirements. A combination of the Gilded Age in which he served and the short duration of his presidency before his assassination has, unfortunately, relegated Garfield to minor league status among presidents.
In fact, Garfield’s all-too-brief presidency is one of the least interesting things about him. His long history of abolitionist sentiment (though he never called himself an abolitionist), service as a Union officer during the Civil War, and support of African American civil and political rights as a congressman are far more consequential. These are the things that make him a far more important figure in American history than most realize and my favorite person of the Civil War era.
Garfield was born into poverty on November 19, 1831. His father died before the future president’s second birthday, and the young man eventually found his calling as a student and scholar. While attending Williams College, Garfield heard an abolitionist lecture about the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict and wrote that evening, “I have been instructed tonight on the political condition of our country… At times such as this, I feel like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil… Slavery has had its day, or at any rate is fast having it.”
When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Garfield was 29 years old, a married father of one serving both as president of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio), and as a part-time Republican Ohio State Senator in Columbus. Two days after the attack, he wrote a friend, “I am glad we are defeated at Sumter. It will rouse the people. I can see no possible end to the war till the South is subjugated. Better to lose a million men in battle than allow the government to be overthrown. The war will soon assume the shape of Slavery and Freedom. The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.” Garfield clearly understood slavery to be the underlying cause of the war, and he often expressed frustration with President Abraham Lincoln for waiting too long to announce a policy of emancipation.
By mid-August 1861, Garfield was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He won a victory at the battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky on January 10, 1862, and a promotion to Brigadier General soon followed. Commanding the 20th Brigade of the Army of the Ohio, Garfield arrived on the field near the end of the battle of Shiloh on April 7, 1862. He wrote his wife that “The horrible sights I have witnessed on this field I can never describe. No blaze of glory that flashes around the magnificent triumphs of war can ever atone for the unwritten and unutterable horrors of the scene of carnage.”
The 20th Brigade eventually moved south to Alabama and Mississippi, where Garfield saw firsthand the horrors of slavery and grew frustrated at orders not to assist slaves. “No one who sees the splendor and luxury of these wealthy planters’ homes can fail to see that the ‘Peculiar Institution’ has great charms for the rich, and yet no one can fail to see that it is the poor man’s bane,” he wrote. “We pass these fine plantations and see the slaves toiling for masters and masters’ sons who are in the rebel army fighting us, and we let them stay at their toil… I could chill your blood with the recital of horrors that have resulted to slaves from their expectation of deliverance and their being abandoned to death at the hands of their overseers.”
Garfield later served on the Fitz-John Porter court martial in Washington, D.C. and as Chief of Staff to the Army of the Cumberland. On September 20, 1863 while that Army was being routed at Chickamauga, he voluntarily rode through heavy Confederate fire to deliver orders and information to Major General George H. Thomas, later called “the Rock of Chickamauga.” Garfield’s work that day is all the more impressive when one considers that his boss, Major General William Rosecrans, had already ordered the Army to withdraw, but Garfield recognized that Thomas was still on the field and desperate for information. Additionally, Garfield was by then a U.S. Congressman-elect. Republicans in northeast Ohio had elected him to the House of Representatives the previous year, and Garfield was scheduled to leave the Army for Congress just a few months later.
When he got to Congress, Garfield continued to be steadfast in his support for the Union and disgust with the rebellion. He hoped the Republican party would nominate a more radical candidate that Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1864, but he reluctantly supported Lincoln when the President was re-nominated. But Garfield continued to be a radical thorn in the President’s side. As Lincoln planned for a lenient Reconstruction, Garfield publicly stated that “the leaders of this rebellion must be banished from the republic… Let the republic drive from its soil the traitors that have conspired against its life, as God and his angels drove Satan and his host from Heaven.”
James Garfield was a vocal advocate for African American rights throughout Reconstruction. By the time he won the presidency in 1880, he was one of the few prominent national Republicans still regularly and publicly discussing the nation’s obligations to former slaves. In his March 4, 1881 inaugural address, he told the crowd that “the elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787.” Garfield knew that the nation’s work on civil rights was far from finished. Who knows how different the history of American civil rights and race relations might have been had President Garfield survived?