Brigadier General James A. Garfield (USA)

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Brigadier General James Abram Garfield (USA)


James Abram Garfield was born in Orange Township (Moreland Hills), Ohio on 19 November 1831. His father soon died and his family was destitute. Garfield escaped through reading. He left home in 1847, finding work on a canal boat, managing the mules that pulled it. However, he soon fell ill and returned home. He attended Geauga Seminary from 1848 to 1850, shining as a student, especially interested in languages and elocution.

He attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (Hiram College), working as a janitor at the school to pay his way. He developed a regular preaching circuit at neighboring churches run by the Disciples. He wooed his future wife Lucretia Rudolph during this time. He then attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts from 1854 to 1856. Garfield succeeded Chester A. Arthur in teaching penmanship to the students of nearby Pownal, Vermont.

He returned to Hiram, Ohio to teach at the Institute, and in 1857 was made its president. He married Lucretia in 1858, and he formally entered his name to read law at a Cleveland firm with an eye toward future political involvement. His was admitted to the bar in 1861. He was elected to the state senate as a Republican.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Governor William Dennison persuaded to Garfield to remain in the legislature. He spent the spring and early summer encouraging enlistment in the new Ohio regiments. Following a trip to Illinois to purchase muskets, Garfield returned to Ohio and received a commission as colonel of the 42nd Ohio Infantry Regiment. His first task was to fill the ranks of the regiment. In December, Garfield brought the regiment to Kentucky where it joined the Army of the Ohio under Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell.

Garfield was tasked with driving Confederates out of eastern Kentucky using the 18th Brigade which included the 42nd Ohio, 40th Ohio, two Kentucky infantry regiments, and two cavalry units. On 6 January 1862, Garfield’s cavalry engaged rebels at Jenny’s Creek near Paintsville, Kentucky. Garfield placed his troops in a way to deceive Confederate Brig. Gen. Humphrey Marshall that his forces were outnumbered. Marshall withdrew, but Garfield’s force caught them at the Battle of Middle Creek on 9 January 1862, the only pitched battle Garfield personally commanded.

He was promoted to brigadier general. He granted any Confederate soldiers who returned to their homes, lived peaceably, and remained loyal to the Union amnesty. Garfield was given command of the 20th Brigade of the Army of the Ohio, which was ordered in early 1862 to join Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces as they advanced on Corinth, Mississippi. Before the 20th Brigade arrived, Confederates under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston attacked Grant’s forces at Pittsburg Landing. Garfield’s men hurried to the battle and helped drive the Confederates back on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh.

During the summer of 1862, Garfield suffered from jaundice and significant weight loss. He was forced to return home, where his wife nursed him back to health. His friends worked to gain him the Republican nomination for Congress. He returned to military duty that autumn and went to Washington to await his next assignment. Rumors of an extra-marital affair caused friction in the Garfield marriage, until Lucretia eventually chose to overlook it. He repeatedly received tentative assignments that were quickly withdrawn. He served on the court-martial of Fitz John Porter, and he was convinced of Porter’s guilt. By the end of the trial, Garfield had secured assignment as Chief of Staff to Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans.

Rosecrans and Garfield became fast friends and his duties extended beyond mere communication of orders to duties that involved actual management of the Army of the Cumberland. Garfield helped devise the Tullahoma Campaign to pursue and trap Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg in Tullahoma. After initial Union success, Bragg retreated to Chattanooga and Rosecrans stalled. Garfield argued for an immediate advance and after lengthy deliberations Rosecrans ordered an attack.

At the Battle of Chickamauga on 19-20 September 1863, confusion led to a gap in Rosecran’s lines and his right flank was routed. Rosecrans concluded the battle was lost and fell back to Chattanooga. Garfield thought part of the army still held and headed across Missionary Ridge to survey the scene. He was correct, and he sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton alerting Washington to the need for reinforcements to avoid annihilation as Rosecran’s army was surrounded in Chattanooga.

Grant was promoted to overall command in the West and replaced Rosecrans with George H. Thomas. Garfield reported to Washington where he was promoted to major general. According to historian Jean Edward Smith, Grant and Garfield had a “guarded relationship”, since Grant promoted Thomas and not Garfield to command of the Army of the Cumberland after Rosecrans was dismissed.

While he was on medical leave in 1862, his friends had campaigned on his behalf for the Ohio 19th District congressional seat. In October, Garfield was elected to the 38th Congress. He met Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase while in Washington waiting for his next military assignment. Following Chattanooga, Garfield resigned his major general commission and joined Congress. Garfield became a radical Republican, frustrated at Lincoln’s reluctance to punish the South. Over time, Garfield came to support a moderate approach for civil rights enforcement for freedmen.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Senator-elect Garfield attended as campaign manager for Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, and gave the presidential nomination speech for him. When neither Sherman, nor his rivals Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine, could get enough votes to secure the nomination, delegates chose Garfield as a compromise on the 36th ballot. Garfield went on to narrowly defeat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock to become the 20th President of the United States.

Garfield proposed substantial civil service reform, eventually passed by Congress in 1883 and signed into law by his successor, Chester A. Arthur. On 2 July 1881, Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Garfield’s wound became infected and he died on 18 September 1881.

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