Friday, December 4, 2015

Vermilya: "JAMES GARFIELD AND THE CIVIL WAR: For Ohio and the Union"

[James Garfield and the Civil War: For Ohio and the Union by Dan Vermilya (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, index. 205 pp. ISBN:978-1-62619-908-8. $21.99]

James Garfield was one of five U.S. presidents born in the state of Ohio who were veterans of the Civil War. Though his popular notoriety stems mostly from being assassinated in office, Garfield had a distinguished Civil War career worthy of study. His duties as field commander and later chief of staff of the Army of the Cumberland comprise the main focus of Dan Vermilya's James Garfield and the Civil War: For Ohio and the Union.

A product of humble origins, Garfield had risen to a respected position in the Ohio State Senate before reaching the age of thirty. Most closely aligned with the radical wing of the Republican party and a strong supporter of the war, Garfield was well positioned for military service and indeed he would eventually receive command of an infantry regiment, the 42nd Ohio. A complete novice when it came to military matters, Garfield studied hard for his new job and his unit was a proficient one by all accounts by the time it entered the field.

Though among the least well known aspects of Garfield's Civil War service, his independently conducted and successful winter 1861-62 Big Sandy Campaign in Kentucky was arguably his most impressive military achievement. Appointed by General Don Carlos Buell to the lead a brigade-sized expedition, one organized on the heels of William "Bull" Nelson's earlier operation, Garfield drove the Confederates out of East Kentucky and secured the area for the Union on an essentially permanent basis. Vermilya perhaps overstates the Union share of the physical and logistical obstacles that campaigning in rugged East Kentucky imposed on both combatants (his Confederate opponent, General Humphrey Marshall, would gladly have switched places) but his overall account of the campaign, including Garfield's outmaneuvering of Marshall at Paintsville and his victory over the Confederates at Middle Creek, is quite well done. When it came to military matters, Garfield proved to be a sharp study but it remains a mystery (or at least the book did not offer an explanation) why Buell selected Garfield, a man with no military experience at any level, to lead the expedition in the first place.

Rewarded with a brigadier's star, Garfield was ordered to leave his old brigade behind and assume a new command (the 18th Brigade) in Buell's Army of the Ohio, which was then on its way to join the grand expedition developing along the Tennessee River. Arriving at Shiloh during the battle's waning moments, Garfield's men took some artillery fire before the shooting ended. During summer operations, Garfield became seriously ill and was eventually forced to take sick leave. While away, he was elected to Congress but would not be seated for another year so he searched for another army position. The quest bore fruit as Garfield would be appointed Army of the Cumberland chief of staff under William Rosecrans, replacing previous occupant Julius Garesche, who was killed at Stones River.

According to most observers, Garfield got along well with General Rosecrans and was an effective army administrator during the Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns. Apparently, he wrote all of the Chickamauga battle orders originating from army headquarters except the fatal one that famously sparked a tragic misunderstanding and crushing defeat. Vermilya briefly discusses, but does not make too much of, "Garfield's Ride at Chickamauga," the famous return trip to the battlefield that braved Confederate fire and fueled the Ohioan's future political career on the national stage.

In October, Garfield was dispatched to Washington to apprise the leaders there of the situation in besieged Chattanooga. Rosecrans would be replaced during Garfield's absence and Garfield would be the subject of much speculation over his role in his chief's dismissal. Many controversial historical questions can be settled simply by close timeline examination and Vermilya does just that in one of the volume's appendices. In it he persuasively lays out his case that Garfield could not be justifiably accused of having any direct role in Rosecrans's downfall. The author maintains that Garfield remained loyal to Rosecrans throughout his tenure, but surely Garfield, a thoroughly practical man who knew how Washington politics worked, should have realized the danger of regularly writing candid private letters to a powerful friend (Salmon Chase, no less) that contained potential ammunition for Rosecrans's political enemies. In December 1863, Garfield resigned from the army and embarked on the career in national politics that would define the rest of his life.

James Garfield and the Civil War succeeds in its goal of offering readers a full and thoughtfully considered appreciation of the citizen-soldier career of the nation's 20th president.

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