During the late summer of 1863, the third year of the American Civil War, the tide began to shift in favor of the North. By then General George Meade had defeated Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Ulysses S. Grant had captured the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the same time, General William Rosecrans advanced through Middle Tennessee intent on seizing the vital rail and manufacturing hub of Chattanooga. Rosecrans took the city, but the Confederates immediately launched a counterattack. On September 19th fighting erupted along Chickamauga Creek, Georgia. The next day Southerners struck with such ferocity that Northern troops fled in panic. As the army, including Rosecrans, dissolved, George Thomas stood defiant and held the rearguard — earning him the title of the “Rock of Chickamauga.” He was not the only Union hero, however. Another officer who displayed conspicuous bravery was an Ohio general who left the retreating Rosecrans and took a stand beside Thomas. Such actions were not new to this officer though, for he had served with distinction across the western theatre. His name was James Garfield. Though most only know his name for briefly holding the highest office in the land, this is the story of his valiant exploits at the Battle of Chickamauga.
When the Civil War began, James Garfield was one of Ohio’s foremost abolitionists. He was born in November 1831 in Orange Township into the Disciples of Christ denomination, and in accordance with the faith’s teachings, he avoided politics while studying at Geauga Seminary and the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. After entering Massachusetts’ Williams College in 1854, however, he frequently attended lectures on slavery and became increasingly aware of the troubles tearing the country apart. Unable to stand idly by, Garfield joined the new Republican Party and dedicated himself to eradicating the South’s “peculiar institution.” Upon returning to Ohio, he embarked on a speaking tour across the state condemning slavery and its spread west. He proved so dynamic he was elected to the Ohio state Senate in October 1859 as representative of the 26th Senatorial District, which included Hudson, Ohio — the home of fiery abolitionist John Brown, who led a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) that same month. After Brown’s hanging in December, Garfield committed himself even more thoroughly to the anti-slavery cause — writing in his diary servitium esto damnatum, or slavery be damned. He joined the Senate the following month and quickly attracted attention for staunchly opposing a proposed bill prohibiting expeditions like Brown’s from originating in Ohio. The measure was sent to committee, and soon forgotten. In the wake of his success, Garfield turned his energy to the 1860 presidential election and vigorously campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. He argued the country’s future was at stake. In November he watched with pride as Lincoln won the election, but events soon took an ominous turn. Throughout the winter of 1860-61 seven Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.
With war clouds on the horizon, James Garfield determined to take part in defending the Union and ending slavery. He urged his fellow legislators to build up the militia, and he himself began drilling and studying tactics. After war began in April 1861, Garfield petitioned Governor William Dennison for a command, and in July he was named lieutenant colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, with a promotion to full colonel in September. In December he moved south into Kentucky, one of the most contested Border States, and after taking command of a brigade, he advanced to the Big Sandy River in east Kentucky to combat Confederate General Humphrey Marshall. Despite inclement weather and nearly impassable roads, he reached Marshall’s camp at Paintsville on January 4, 1862, and the following day he pressed both Confederate flanks and the center, causing Marshall to fall back to defensive ground on Middle Creek. Garfield caught up on January 10th, and despite having no artillery, he launched a series of attacks all along the line, repeatedly forcing the enemy back. When Marshall refused to retreat, Garfield threw the entire brigade forward, and after an hour of brutal combat, he watched in grim satisfaction as the Confederates were forced to flee. However, his work was not done yet. Returning to Paintsville, he operated against marauding Confederates before moving on Marshall’s new position at Pound Gap, the gateway between Kentucky and Virginia. On March 16th he led his infantry and cavalry against the Confederates and finally pushed the enemy out of eastern Kentucky.
Having accomplished his mission, newly promoted Brigadier General Garfield departed Kentucky for Tennessee where he joined the Army of the Ohio, which was on the march to link up with Ulysses S. Grant’s army encamped around a log church called Shiloh on the Tennessee River. Before Garfield and his comrades arrived, however, Confederate troops struck Grant on April 6th and drove him to the riverbank. When Garfield reached the battlefield the next day he joined the Union counterattack and led his men against enemy artillery. The Confederates soon retreated, and Garfield, alongside his comrades, advanced on the rail hub of Corinth, Mississippi. The city fell following a brief siege, but soon after, Garfield became ill and returned to Ohio on sick leave. While recuperating, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but though eager to serve, he determined to remain in uniform until Congress assembled in December 1863. Returning to duty in January 1863, he became chief of staff for William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. He threw himself into the job of administering the army, but he soon grew restless and yearned to strike the enemy. His desire was fulfilled on June 24th when Rosecrans ordered the army to move on the Confederate base at Tullahoma, Tennessee. In nine days Garfield and his comrades outmaneuvered the Rebels and so threatened the enemy supply line Confederate forces had to withdraw to Chattanooga, giving Union forces control of Middle Tennessee.
After seizing Tullahoma, Garfield and Rosecrans turned their attention on Chattanooga, and using a series of roads across Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, they forced Rebel troops to abandon the city and retreat into northwest Georgia. Galvanized by the tactical victory, Garfield pursued the seemingly demoralized enemy, but on the afternoon of September 18th Union forces met a reenergized Confederate army along Chickamauga Creek. Word raced back to Rosecrans’ headquarters at the Gordon-Lee Mansion, and Garfield realized a monumental fight awaited him the next morning. As battle erupted on September 19th, Rosecrans determined to move closer to the scene of action, and along with Garfield, he moved to Widow Glenn’s home, which offered a panoramic view of Union lines. From the new location, Garfield issued orders strengthening the Union center and right in hopes of finding a weak spot in Confederate lines while simultaneously moving men north so as to maintain contact with George Thomas on the Union left flank. When fresh troops arrived, Garfield raced them onto the field to fend off the increasingly savage Rebel attacks, and when holes appeared in his lines, he hurriedly dispatched troops to fill them. Due in large part to these efforts, the Army of the Cumberland was still intact as night fell. But all that changed the next day.
On the morning of September 20th Rosecrans withdrew men from his center in order to fill a supposed hole in the line — opening a real gap in actuality. At that moment Confederate infantry attacked, and within minutes the army had taken flight. Rosecrans joined the exodus, even as Garfield heard musket fire coming from the Union left which told him George Thomas was holding his position. Rosecrans, however, refused to believe the day could be salvaged. Yet his fiery chief of staff determined to try. Upon reaching Rossville, six miles to the rear, with his commander, Garfield had gone far enough, and leaving Rosecrans, he turned and galloped back towards the battlefield. He thundered down the Lafayette Road, littered with debris discarded by fleeing troops, and through fields and woodlots, always looking ahead and following the roar of artillery and musketry. After two hours of hard riding, he passed Cloud Church, a short distance from Union lines. Suddenly, Rebel skirmishers appeared in front of him and opened fire. His horse suffered a flesh wound, but Garfield himself escaped harm. Following the near miss, he spurred on and soon saw Union troops doggedly holding the Rebels at bay. He “never forgot [his] amazement and admiration when I beheld Thomas holding his own with utter defeat on each side and wild confusion in the rear.”
Examining Thomas’ position, Garfield sent an immediate dispatch to Rosecrans reporting Thomas commanded a large portion of the army and that he still held most of the same ground he had that morning. Consequently, Garfield saw no need to retreat all the way to Chattanooga, and he urged Rosecrans to hold the remaining Union soldiers at Rossville. With the message off, the Ohioan took a place along Thomas’ defensive line, and in the hours to come, he fired upon wave after wave of charging Confederates. The afternoon saw fierce fighting as the Rebels repeatedly attacked Thomas’ front and flanks, but Garfield and his men ferociously repelled them. Through it all, Garfield stayed at his post and displayed such fortitude that officers and enlisted men alike praised his heroism. He remained in position until nightfall when, believing he and Thomas had bought enough time for the Army of the Cumberland to escape, he withdrew to Rossville where he remained the next day in anticipation of renewed attacks. When no attack came, he returned to Chattanooga — one of the few officers to emerge from the near disastrous battle covered in glory. He and Thomas had saved Union forces from a complete route.
Shortly after the battle, Garfield left the Army for Washington, D.C. where he reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and won promotion to major general for his gallantry. He held the rank only two months, however, before resigning in order to take his congressional seat. As part of the House Military Affairs Committee, he vigorously supported drafting more men into the army and ending commutation, whereby recruits bought their way out of service. He also advocated punishment of all who supported the rebellion by confiscating property. His greatest triumph though came in January 1865 when he witnessed the permanent abolition of slavery with adoption of the 13th Amendment. After the war ended, Garfield vocally championed civil rights and fought for the 14th and 15th Amendments, giving African-Americans equal protection and the right to vote respectively. Throughout the 1870s he climbed the ranks as he called for free trade and for gold to back America’s monetary policy. Then in 1880 he won the party’s presidential nomination. During the campaign, his supporters lauded his ride to glory at Chickamauga, and largely thanks to the image, he defeated fellow war hero Winfield S. Hancock for the presidency. After his inauguration on March 4, 1881, Garfield labored to expand educational opportunities for African-Americans and to establish America’s place in the world, but his efforts were cut short on July 2nd when Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker, shot him in the back. He suffered for two months before dying on September 19th — eighteen years to the day he was in the fight of his life.
James Garfield was a devout Unionist throughout his life. As a young man, he dedicated himself to perfecting America, and when his country faced peril, he willingly took up the sword to preserve it for future generations. He battled and defeated Confederates across Kentucky and Tennessee, but his greatest fight came on the banks of Chickamauga in September 1863. While thousands of Union soldiers, including his commander, raced for the rear, Garfield risked death charging in the opposite direction. Once on the field, he tenaciously fought to ensure the Army of the Cumberland lived to fight another day. The credit for saving the army frequently goes to George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” but as his fellow combatants could testify, James Garfield stood like an immovable pillar that day.