As a native of Ohio, I have always found James A. Garfield, Civil War general and 20th president of the United States, an extremely intriguing individual. To that end, I recently read a fascinating new book about this amazing American. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, written by Candice Millard, is a riveting new work detailing the dramatic story of the election, assassination, and death of James Garfield. Born into abject poverty, Garfield rose from his humble beginnings to become one of the most remarkable men ever to hold the highest office in the land. With a keen intellect, an unsatiable appetite for books and knowledge, and a drive and passion equal to the greatest figures in history, Garfield was truly a self-made man. His journey from canal boy to the presidency took him through many places. His posts along the way included becoming a young professor, the president of a university, Lt. Colonel of the 42nd Ohio, a Union general in the Civil War, and a United States Congressman. As an ardent Christian and firm abolitionist, Garfield was at the forefront of the Republican party when it came to taking a progressive stance on race relations and rights for freedpeople in the reconstructed South. In 1880, his eloquence and wisdom, evident in his nomination speech for John Sherman, elevated him to his party's nomination for the presidency, a post he did not want nor seek. Once elected, Garfield brought his faith and determination with him to the White House, hoping to clean up a corrupt and misguided government.
All that came to an abrupt end soon after taking office. On July 2, 1881, a mentally disturbed office seeker named Charles Guiteau, acting entirely on his own, shot Garfield in the back at the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington. Guiteau had expected praise and acclaim for his brave act of "removing" the president for the good of the country. Instead, he was greeted with righteous indignation, an anger which brought the country together in prayer for the life of their president. With fumbling doctors more concerned about their egos and credentials than germ theory, Garfield was repeatedly infected with germs through unsanitary exams and surgeries. Despite the best creative efforts of Alexander Graham Bell to find the bullet using cutting edge metal detecting inventions, the infections that ravaged Garfield's body proved too much to bear. He struggled for several months, dying on September 19, 1881.
I highly recommend Candice Millard's work, as it is an excellent read. Her narrative is engaging and tells the remarkable story of a remarkable man who was gunned down by a cowardly and insane assassin. While Garfield languishes in relative historical obscurity, his is a story which should be told. His short presidency may serve as simply a footnote or piece of trivia, but it tells us far more about our past and who we are as Americans. America is a nation which allowed a poor boy to rise to the highest office in the land, entirely on his own strengths of learning and determination. Millard emphasizes the virtue of Garfield's character, assuming an office he did not seek, simply for the good of the country. She places Garfield, his presidency, and his assassination firmly in the context of late 19th century American politics, portraying him as a promising bright light for the country that was tragically snuffed out far too soon. For those looking for a great read about a remarkable man and a tragic piece of nearly forgotten American history, Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic is an excellent choice.
Our Country's Fiery Ordeal
A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)
Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)