On January 10, 1862, James A. Garfield, a school president and State Senator from Ohio, became a battle tested leader. On that date, the little known Battle of Middle Creek was fought in the wilderness of Eastern Kentucky. While the casualties from Middle Creek were quite small, it was a battle with great strategic importance for Kentucky, as well as for the life and career of Garfield.
Brigadier General James A. Garfield (his commission dated to January 10, 1862, the date of the Battle of Middle Creek)
When the fever of war spread across the country in early 1861, men from every walk of life began to enlist. For James Abram Garfield, sitting in the Ohio State Senate, the moment was powerful. He and his close friend, Jacob Donelson Cox, resolved to do all they could to aid the Union cause in putting down the rebellion. For months, Garfield had been preaching the gospel of abolitionism, seemingly welcoming the coming war for its promise of destroying slavery once and for all. In January, Garfield wrote to a friend using a theme of divine retribution which would reappear in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural four years later: “I am inclined to believe that the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission.’ All that is left for us… is to arm and prepare to defend ourselves and the Federal Government.” Two days after Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Garfield expressed a resolve to see the war through to victory no matter the cost: “I hope we will never stop short of complete subjugation. Better 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 that the final outcome will resound to the good of humanity.”
That spring and summer, as Ohio recruited men to serve in defending the Union, Garfield and U.S. Senator John Sherman traversed the state giving patriotic addresses to rouse the citizenry to action. The Portage County Democrat spoke well of Garfield’s talents as an orator and abiding belief in the Union cause: “Garfield goes forth, like an apostle of Liberty, a preacher of righteousness, proclaiming the Gospel which demands equal obedience to God and resistance to tyrants.” While Jacob Cox and others went straight from politics to the army, Garfield spent the first few months of the war serving political and patriotic needs, making trips for Ohio Governor William Dennison to secure supplies and material for Ohio soldiers. In July, Garfield’s opportunity to don a uniform arrived when Dennison offered him a the position of Lieutenant Colonel for one of Ohio’s new regiments. In August, Garfield was sworn in as a Lieutenant Colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He quickly went to work organizing and recruiting the regiment, getting students from the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where he was the school’s president, to enlist in droves. By November of 1861, the 42nd Ohio was mustered into service with Garfield as its Colonel. On December 14, after spending several weeks at Camp Chase in Columbus, the 42nd Ohio was ordered to report to Prestonsburg, Kentucky by Ohio Department commander Don Carlos Buell.
Upon his arrival in Kentucky, Garfield met directly with Buell and was given a daunting task, especially given his lack of military experience. In Eastern Kentucky, Confederate forces commanded by Brigadier General Humphrey Marshal were advancing north through the Sandy Valley, threatening the flank of Union forces in the state. Buell assigned Garfield the task of stopping Marshall, and to do so, he organized the 18th brigade of the Army of Ohio, consisting of the 42nd O.V.I., 40th O.V.I., 14th K. V. I., and the 22nd K.V.I., along with several companies of Ohio and Kentucky cavalry forces.  As Garfield planned for the upcoming campaign in Louisville, his men began moving into place. By December 19, the 42nd O.V.I. had reached Catlettsburg and began preparing for the task ahead. After proceeding 20 miles south to Louisa, Garfield rejoined his soldiers, just in time to see the weather turn colder with rain becoming snow. In early January, with Garfield’s men camped along the Big Sandy River, Marshall’s Confederate force was 18 miles away at Paintsville.
Despite lacking artillery and being outnumbered by at least 1,000 men (Marshall had 2,500 troops, Garfield had 1,500), Garfield still followed out his task and advanced against Marshall’s forces. By dividing his smaller force into three pieces and moving simultaneously on three separate avenues of advance, Garfield gave Marshall the impression that his numbers were much greater than they were, thus causing a Confederate retreat from Paintsville and giving the Union forces a bloodless first victory in the campaign. After days of slowly moving south toward the Confederate forces, on January 10, Garfield’s men caught up with Marshall’s Confederates near Middle Creek.
The Battle of Middle Creek itself lasted but a few hours. After encountering Confederate skirmishers near the Left Fork Branch of Middle Creek, Garfield ordered a cavalry reconnaissance to determine the enemy strength in the area. After the enemy fired on the cavalry troops, giving away their positions, Garfield ordered several assaults aimed at testing the Confederate lines. Garfield largely attacked Marshall’s right flank, which was well entrenched, making his men vulnerable to heavy casualties or even a route should a strong counter attack have been mounted. During that afternoon, Garfield watched and directed the fight from a hill known as Grave Yard Point, looking down onto the valley and battle below. He later described the scene: “The whole hill was enclosed in such a volume of smoke as rolls from the mouth of a volcano. Thousands of gun flashes leaped like lightning from the clouds. Every minute the fight grew hotter. In my agony of anxiety I prayed to God for the reinforcement to appear.” Garfield’s prayers worked well that day because just as his last reserves had been sent into the fight, 700 troops from his command arrived from Paintsville, having made the long and arduous march that day to arrive at the field at precisely the right moment in the battle. Garfield’s reinforcements strengthened his lines at the base of the valley, but they arrived too late in the day to mount another frontal assault. That evening, due to the repeated attacks by Garfield’s men, Marshall began withdrawing his Confederate forces south, back toward western Virginia. More action would be necessary to push Marshall out of the state altogether, but Garfield’s victory at Middle Creek was a major step in keeping Eastern Kentucky free of a Confederate presence.
Compared to later battles in the war, Middle Creek barely registers on the casualty scale. The total number of killed, wounded, and missing amounted to less than 100 (27 Union, 65 Confederate). Yet, while the casualties were light, for many soldiers who fought at Middle Creek, it was their first taste of war. Garfield himself wrote that “It was a terrible sight … to walk over the battle field and see the horrible faces of the dead rebels stretched on the hill in all shapes and positions.” As a member of the Disciple church in the Western Reserve, Garfield had at one time been a pacifist. However, with the progression of his studies, his religious and political beliefs came to change. The former pacifist and future president would later vindicate the justice of war by proclaiming at a Cleveland Sanitary Fair in February 1864, “We have all frequently heard of the horrors of war, but we have not so often thought of the horrors of peace. Bad as war may be, grater evils sometimes emerge from a long peace.” Garfield believed that prolonged peace could make national life “stagnant,” allowing citizens to forget the dear principles they loved and the price required to maintain such principles. In war he saw opportunities for greatness that needed to be seized. In the Civil War, he saw an opportunity for national redemption and the abolition of slavery, making the sacrifices of battle worthwhile.
For his actions at Middle Creek, Garfield received a commission as a Brigadier General, dating to January 10, 1862. Both he and the 42nd O.V.I. went on to many other feats in the war, but their journey through combat started at the small Battle of Middle Creek 150 years ago today. As 42nd O.V.I. veteran Frank Holcomb Mason wrote in his 1876 history of the regiment, Garfield’s spirit and leadership in recruiting the regiment and in leading them at Middle Creek set the tone and inspired the men for the rest of the war:
It was due largely to [Garfield’s] enthusiastic efforts that the Regiment was made up of some of the best material that Ohio sent into the field. The careful, laborious education, the discipline, the quickening of individual self-respect that the Regiment underwent at his hands while in Camp Chase, were never lost upon its men. Long after he had gone to other duties the recollection of his words was a source of inspiration to the men, and as they went into their first fight at Middle Creek against overwhelming numbers with serene confidence because their trusted Colonel had sent them, so afterwards they fought and marched as though conscious that the eve of their first commander was still upon them.
 Allan Peskin, Garfield (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1978), 79.
 Ibid., 86.
 Portage County Democrat, April 24, 1861.
 Today, the school is Hiram College.
 O.V.I. and K.V.I. stand for Ohio Volunteer Infantry and Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, respectively.
 Peskin, 117.
 Peskin, 119.
 Portage County Democrat, March 2, 1864
 Frank Holcomb Mason, The 42nd Ohio Infantry (Cleveland: Cobb, Andrews, & Co. Publishers, 1876), 20.