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Born on a country farm in Ohio, future President James A. Garfield began working on a canal when he was 17. After attending a local school (today's Hiram College), Garfield matriculated at Williams College in Massachusetts and returned home, becoming a preacher, occasionally with an abolitionist message. Because of his abolitionist views, he joined the Republican Party, successfully running for the Ohio senate in 1859.
In January, 1862, Colonel Garfield won the battle of Middle Creek, defeating Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall [CS]. With more than 4,000 men engaged, this small battle was a pivotal Union victory. Coupled with George Thomas's victory at the Battle of Mill Springs a week later, it gave the United States undisputed control of Eastern Kentucky, although Garfield's battle was strategically more important because it cleared a path for the Union Army to the Cumberland Gap and Eastern Tennessee.
In September, 1862, five Republican candidates were nominated for the U. S. House of Representatives from Garfield's district. Only Garfield was not present at the time. Garfield was elected that November. Assigned to William S. Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland in January, 1863, following the Battle of Stone's River, James Garfield alone advocated the Tullahoma Campaign, and played a significant role as Rosecrans Chief-of-Staff in organizing the strategy.
As the Army of the Cumberland came down from Lookout Mountain and engaged the Army of Tennessee near Chickamauga Creek, Garfield again played a significant role, riding along Lafayette Road and reporting back to Rosecrans. When Confederates broke through at Brotherton Cabin, Garfield helped in an attempt to organize a Union line, but when this failed, he concurred that Rosecrans should leave the battlefield. He escorted his commanding officer to McFarland Gap and told him to go to Chattanooga to prepare for the arrival of his men.
At this point, 31-year-old James Garfield took his famous 6-mile ride back to Snodgrass Hill. As he advanced with two orderlies, the future president picked officers looking for ammunition as he returned to George Thomas. At one point Confederate infantry in some woods near Cloud's fired a volley at his party, forcing them off Lafayette Road, but still he advanced, arriving at Thomas's position at 3:35pm. He spoke with Thomas and Granger, checked out the situation and sent a telegram to Rosecrans with "recommendations" for orders. 15 minutes later, Garfield's reworded telegram was received at Thomas's headquarters. Rosecrans had written the time to make it appear as though his telegram preceded Garfield (he later admitted he had made a mistake on the time, but he always denied receiving Garfield's telegram).
During the siege of Chattanooga, Garfield remained as chief-of-staff, but after Ulysses S. Grant engineered the breakout in November, 1863, Garfield left to take his congressional seat. His military background made him a logical choice for the Committee of Military Affairs, later serving on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Garfield was in the New York Financial District. Rioting broke out, but when Garfield appeared it quieted long enough for him to talk, ending with, "...Fellow citizens: God reigns and the government in Washington still lives." The riot ceased.
Garfield supported the stern Reconstruction measures passed by the Radical Republicans following the war, but when Thaddeus Stevens left the Senate in 1868, he and James G. Blaine as leaders of the House and Senate took a more moderate approach to Reconstruction. The well-known scandals that occurred during Grant's administration only barely touched Garfield. When the Election of 1876 was thrown into the House of Representatives, Garfield led the fight for Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes.
Hayes chose U. S. Senator John Sherman (R-Oh) as his Secretary of the Treasury and Garfield lobbied the Ohio legislature to select him for the position (Senators were not directly elected in many states until the 20th century). Hayes, though, asked Garfield to continue in the House. The congressman agreed to President Hayes wishes.
On the 34th ballot the convention was hopelessly deadlocked when John Sherman released his delegates and asked them to vote for Garfield, who was on the convention floor in the Ohio delegation. Garfield protested to the convention chairman, but it was too late. His name swept the convention and two ballots later he was the choice for President.
The 1880 campaign proved to be fairly boring - neither side had major disagreements. The war records of each candidate (his opponent was Winfield S. Hancock, noted Eastern Theater general). Of particular concern to the Democrats was Garfield's role in the battle of Chickamauga and his six-mile ride back to the battlefield.
Garfield maintained that he only left the battlefield to escort his commanding officer to the safety of McFarland Gap (a reasonable job for a chief-of-staff). His return to the battlefield at 3:30 gave him a time discrepancy, at least according to the Democrats (Hancock wisely stayed out of this argument). Riding 12 miles, even on a battlefield, should take significantly less than 3 hours. Garfield's supporters pointed out that on the return trip from McFarland Gap, the Confederate volley forced him to ride in the open fields rather than on the road, slowing him down. Democrats trotted out an orderly with the general who claimed the "volley" consisted of a single shot, but others in the group held the volley was much more than one rifle.
Two bullets struck the Civil War hero, one in the arm and one in the back. Doctors could not find the bullet in his back, and their unsanitary methods introduced disease each time they probed for it. Although he remained lucid throughout his final days, James Garfield died on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur was now President.
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