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)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

December 5, 1863: James Garfield Resigns from the Army

152 years ago today, on December 5, 1863, James Garfield resigned his position in the Union army. He did so having achieved the rank of Major General of Volunteers, a promotion he was given for his service in the Battle of Chickamauga. Indeed, the date of rank for his promotion was September 19, 1863, the first day of Chickamauga. It was also, as fate would have it, eighteen years to the day before he succumbed to his wounds from an assassin’s bullet as president in 1881.

Garfield leaving the army at the rank of Major General of Volunteers was remarkable for a man who had risen so quickly. He was leaving the army at the age of thirty-two, just one year shy of his father's age when Abram Garfield died in Ohio in 1833. In almost the same amount of years, he had gone considerably farther in his life than his father ever had. He had been a professor, college president, state senator, and now, a general in the Union army.

Garfield had mixed feelings about leaving the army in December 1863. He did so in order to take a seat in Congress that he had been elected to the previous year. When his name had come into consideration for a congressional nomination in the summer of 1862, Garfield pledged to his friends and supporters that if he were elected, he would leave the army to serve his constituents in Congress. At the time, however, Garfield and the Union were in the midst of one of several low points during the war. While Confederates made gains on the battlefields of the South, Garfield had grown frustrated with the pace of the war and his role in it, which he believed to be quite lackluster at that time.

Garfield won his election in October 1862 while he was in Washington awaiting a new assignment in the army. That month, Garfield was embroiled in the fervor of Civil War Washington, growing frustrated at the lack of progress being made on the battlefields in stemming the tide of the Confederate rebellion. Garfield developed a strong disdain for a number of West Point educated and professional army officers, believing that too many of them adopted a conservative approach in the war that would only lead to Southern victory. In the same month in which he was elected to Congress, Garfield passionately wrote, “If the Republic goes down in blood and ruin, let its obituary be written thus: ‘Died of West Point.’” With such an attitude, it is no wonder that he had a desire to leave the army for the arena of politics.

Following Garfield’s election, Congress was not meeting for its first new session until December 1863. Thus, Garfield had time before he had to leave the army, allowing him to serve as the Chief of Staff for William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland through most of that year. This continued service was not a sure thing, however. At least not at first. Early in 1863, Garfield wrote to Attorney General Edward Bates to ask him what he was legally required to do as a Congressman-elect who was active in the army. Did he have to resign right away? Bates assured Garfield that he did not have to resign until he took his seat in Congress, guaranteeing Garfield several months more active service in the Union army. This allowed Garfield to continue gaining invaluable experience and to help orchestrate and take part in the Tullahoma Campaign and to play an important role in the midst of the maelstrom of war that was the Battle of Chickamauga.  

Even in late 1863, Garfield still had qualms about leaving the army. In a meeting with President Lincoln, Garfield expressed his reservations over resigning his position to serve in Congress. Lincoln encouraged Garfield to take his congressional seat, telling the young Ohioan that he needed congressmen "who know the wants of the army from practical knowledge."

With the advice of the president and his past promises in mind, Garfield resigned from the army 152 years ago today. He was taking the same enthusiasm for the war which he had displayed in the army and transforming it into his congressional career. He would no longer fight as an army officer; now, he would fight as a congressman.

Beyond his conflicted feelings about leaving the army, Garfield entered into Congress in a moment of great personal grief. On December 1, his first-born child Eliza died in Ohio. Nicknamed "Trot" after a character in a Charles Dickens novel, Eliza was born on the eve of the war in July 1860. Garfield's letters home throughout the war frequently spoke of her, asking his wife Lucretia to "kiss Trot" for him.

Just days after Eliza's funeral, Garfield found himself in Washington, leaving the “wild life of the army” behind, as he described his military experiences in a letter to his wife Lucretia. He was about to embark on a new and entirely different endeavor, one which would eventually lead him to the White House.

Friday, December 4, 2015

James Garfield in Civil War Washington

Wanted to share the video from a talk I did last month. This was my keynote talk at the James Garfield Symposium at Lakeland Community College, sponsored by the Friends of the James Garfield National Historic Site. The symposium's topic was Garfield in Washington.

While most of the talks focused on Garfield as a Congressman and President, I instead focused on Garfield's introduction to Washington during the Civil War. His time in the capital while he was still in the army aided him in making political connections and emerging on the national political scene in the midst of some of the most harrowing times in American history.

The video is courtesy of Lakeland Community College, which filmed the program for their youtube and television channels.