Rutherford Birchard Hayes (President from 1877-1881) was a genuine war hero. When the Civil War began, Hayes joined the many volunteers signing up for the army. He was named a major in the 23rd Ohio Infantry regiment on June 27, 1861. This regiment later became famous for containing not one but two future Presidents. Hayes rose from major to the rank of major general.
Hayes participated in the guerilla warfare in western Virginia under General McClellan. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of the regiment on October 24, 1861. The 23rd Ohio, along with Lieutenant-Colonel Hayes, served under General Fremont in the (Shenandoah) Valley Campaign. He then fought in a series of engagements that culminated at the Battle of Antietam. At the Battle of South Mountain, Hayes was severely wounded in the left arm, but despite being weak from the loss of blood, he continued to direct his troops and succeeded in scattering the enemy in his front.
On October 24, 1862, Hayes was promoted to colonel and given the command of the 23rd Ohio. In 1863, as a brigade commander, his troops fought the famous Confederate cavalry commander General Morgan during his famous raid along the Ohio River. He next fought with General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Campaign, which successfully cleared the Confederates out of that important valley. At the Battles of Winchester and Cedar Creek, Hayes commanded a division in Sheridan’s army. At the Battle of Cedar Creek, he badly wrenched his ankle as his horse was shot out from under him. After this engagement, he was promoted to brigadier general.
General Ulysses S. Grant cited Hayes for “conspicuous gallantry” and Hayes was brevetted for his bravery in the battles at Fischers Hill and Cedar Creek. He ended the war as a brevet major general. He participated in more than 50 battles, was wounded four times, and had four horses shot out from under him.
In the election of 1864, the Republican Party in his home district in Ohio nominated war-hero Hayes for Congress. They asked him to resign his commission and return home for the campaign. Hayes refused to leave the army, saying “An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.” This response, when publicized, made him even more popular and he won an easy victory. After the election, he was again urged to resign his commission to take his seat in Congress. He said, “I shall never come to Washington until I can come by way of Richmond.” He did that late in 1865.
James A. Garfield (President from 1881-1881) was another genuine war hero. He was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 42nd Ohio Regiment on August 21, 1861. On November 27 of that year, he was promoted to colonel and given command of the regiment. He was later given command of a brigade, which he led against superior Confederate forces under the command of General Humphrey Marshall at the Battle of Middle Creek in January 1862. He again commanded his brigade against General Humphrey Marshall in March 1862 at the Battle of Pound Gap in Kentucky. For his success in stopping the superior Confederate forces at Middle Creek, he was promoted to brigadier general. As a brigade commander in the Army of the Ohio he led his troops at the Battle of Shiloh.
In January 1863, he was made chief of staff to General William S. Rosecrans, the commanding general of the Army of the Cumberland. In September of that year, he participated in the Battle of Chickamauga, where he was cited for exceptional bravery under fire. During the battle, Garfield made a daring ride under constant enemy fire to deliver orders to commands from one flank of the Union position to the other. Although he was not hurt, he had his horse shot out from under him, so severe was the enemy fire. For this action, he was promoted to major general. General Rosecrans said of Garfield, “I feel much indebted to him for both counsel and assistance in the administration of this army. He possesses the instinct and energy of a great commander.”
Garfield was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in September of 1862, and resigned his commission to take his seat in Congress in December 1863. In 1880, he followed fellow-Ohioan Rutherford Hayes into the White House. His term was cut short when Garfield, who had survived a storm of bullets at Chickamauga, was assassinated by a lone gunman in the railroad station in Washington, D.C.
In the final article in this series, we will follow the last three Presidents to serve in the Civil War, including the only President to serve as a private.