On September 19, 1881, United States President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) died in Elberon, New Jersey seventy-nine days after he was shot and mortally wounded by Charles J. Guiteau (1841-1882) on July 2, 1881. The assassin, motivated by a desire to see Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) become president. Arthur did become the next president, but Guiteau was on borrowed time and was executed on July 30, 1882. Garfield was shot after two months in the White House and died in less than one year as president. His remarkably short tenure as president is often overlooked by history but there was far more to his story that has been taught in history classes. The story of his life is equally as intriguing as its ending and in this short but concise examination of the late president, Daniel Vermilya focuses on Garfield’s early life and his time as a Union officer in the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Admittedly, my knowledge of Garfield’s life was restricted to his assassination which placed him in the group of presidents cut down before their time. I was not aware of his service in the Union Army. It became clear as I started the book that I was in for a history lesson. Although the story is not a definitive biography of Garfield, there is enough information regarding his life to provide readers with an image of who he was behind the photographs. Of course, Garfield’s early life in Ohio is discussed and the tragic demise of his father Abram, whose death affected the family in profound ways. The story picks up in pace as Garfield matures, becoming a lawyer in 1861 and turning his focus to politics. But that all changed on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops opened fired at Fort Sumter. To anyone paying attention, it was clear that the war was on. And Garfield could not have known that his life would change permanently.
The section about his Civil War experiences is the crux of the book and the author brings the past alive with a writing style that keeps the story moving at the right pace. Not once did I feel my attention waning and was in awe of the material becoming known to myself regarding Garfield’s service. I knew none of this as a student in school. Interesting, Garfield was one of several former Union officers who later became president. In fact, the author is far blunter in his assessment when he states:
“Without his service during the war, James Garfield never would have enjoyed the postwar political career that he did. His status as a leading Republican in the later 1860s and 1870s was based on his military record above all else.”
His posting, however, was in Ohio with the 42nd Infantry Regiment and the battles in which they engaged were among the war’s most important. All are discussed here showing the savagery of the war. Further, Garfield was a dedicated abolitionist and his commitment to slavery’s destruction is on full display. And fittingly, the late John Brown (1800-1859) enters the story in years preceding the war.
Regarding the war, the elephant in the room is undeniably the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) shortly before the war’s bloody conclusion. Garfield had admired Lincoln, but as Vermilya shows, the relationship was not without its issues. Garfield had a strong moral compass and anyone who did not measure up was subject to his judgment. Expectedly, Garfield is crushed by Lincoln’s death but satisfied at the South’s defeat. His time in the Union ended and the book moves on to his next destination in politics. I found myself surprised at Garfield’s accomplishments which occurred in a remarkably brief period. His belief in the destruction of slavery and change in America was not just rhetoric. The author summarizes this in explaining that:
“In the time he had, Garfield appointed African Americans to positions within the federal government, including making Frederick Douglass the recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C. Garfield believed strongly that a federally backed education system in the South would be the key to helping to lift Arican Americans from poverty and degradation.”
We can only wonder about the other things he would have done had he lived. He was far from the only Republican focused on civil rights and rebuilding the South but sadly, opportunities were lost through the failure of the Reconstruction Acts failed and rise of Jim Crow. Garfield would have been disappointed had he survived yet we can only guess as to what he would have been able to do following his time as president. However, his service record and time in the White House provide strong clues. If you are in search of an enjoyable book about the Civil War and the life of James A. Garfield, this is a good place to start.