Chester Alan Arthur (President from 1881-1885) had a very different military career. He got into the military through politics. In 1858, the influential lawyer and political operative joined the New York militia as a brigade judge advocate. After helping organize the campaign that returned Governor Edwin D. Morgan to a second term, Arthur was appointed engineer-in-chief of the New York militia. This was supposed to be a purely ceremonial position, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, it took on new duties. (Andrew Jackson got into the military in the same way prior to the War of 1812.)
Arthur was given the additional duties of assistant quartermaster general, and placed in charge of feeding, housing and equipping the many thousands of volunteers joining New York regiments. The honesty and ingenuity he displayed led to his promotion to inspector general of the state and, shortly thereafter, quartermaster general of the state. Through these various assignments, he held the rank of brigadier general in the New York militia. With the exception of a trip in the spring of 1862 to inspect New York troops at Fredericksburg and along the Chickahominy River, Arthur spent his entire military career in New York. Still, he made a valuable contribution to the war effort, and enjoyed being called “general” for the rest of his life.
Governor Morgan said of Arthur: “He was my chief reliance in the duties of equipping and transporting troops and munitions of war. In the position of Quarter Master General, he displayed not only great executive ability and unbending integrity, but great knowledge of Army Regulations. He can say No (which is important) without giving offense.”
In 1863, the Democrats recaptured the governorship of New York, and replaced the Republican Arthur with a loyal Democrat. Arthur’s Democratic successor paid him the compliment of noting for the record that Arthur had saved the government much time and money by “creating a well-organized system of labor and accountability . . . at a period when everything was in confusion . . .”
Grover Cleveland (President from 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) did not serve in the military during the Civil War. He and his brothers drew straws to see which of them would remain at home and care for their elderly mother. Cleveland lost, and paid a substitute to take his place. This was a perfectly legal way of avoiding the draft provided by the terms of the Conscription Act of 1863. He paid $150.00 to George Brinske, a Polish immigrant, to serve in his place.
Benjamin Harrison (President from 1889-1893) served in the 70th Indiana Regiment. He started as a 2nd lieutenant, and quickly worked his way up to colonel of the regiment in less than a month. He proved to be a capable, but not entirely popular, commander. He turned his raw recruits into disciplined soldiers, and the regiment performed very well during the war. Although considered cold, aloof and abrupt, he nevertheless earned the affectionate nickname of “Little Ben.”
As a brigade commander under General Joseph Hooker during the Atlanta Campaign, Colonel Harrison led his brigade in a daring charge of the Confederate defenses at Peach Tree Creek and then organized the Union defense against the Confederate counter-attack. Harrison’s victory there made it possible for General Sherman to continue his famous march through Georgia. For his part in the campaign, Harrison was promoted to brigadier general.
Harrison wrote about his lack of enthusiasm for military life, “I am not a Julius Caesar, nor a Napoleon, but a plain Hoosier colonel, with no more relish for a fight than for a good breakfast and hardly so much.” But he performed well, and led his men successfully through a number of battles. He was recognized for his courage and ability.
The only President to serve as a private in the Civil War, William McKinley (President from 1897-1901) had a very different military career than the other Presidents. McKinley enlisted at the age of 18 in June 1861, and served as a private in the 23rd Ohio Regiment. The commander of that regiment was another future President, Rutherford B. Hayes.
For his bravery in action, McKinley was promoted to commissary sergeant in April 1862. He took part in the battles at Clark’s Hollow and Princeton Ferry in West Virginia, and at South Mountain and Antietam in Maryland. For conspicuous valor at the Battle of Antietam, McKinley was promoted to 2nd lieutenant. After serving as temporary commander of his company, he served on the staff of Colonel Rutherford Hayes. In February 1863, he was promoted to 1st lieutenant. He fought against Morgan’s Raiders at Buffington’s Island, Ohio, in July 1863. He fought at Clay’s Mountain in May 1864.
At Winchester, Virginia, in July 1864, McKinley again displayed conspicuous valor under fire while retrieving heavy artillery from the enemy. The next day, he was promoted to captain. He saw further action at Opequon and Cedar Creek in September 1864, and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia, in October 1864. He also served on the staffs of Generals George Crook and Winfield Scott Hancock. In March 1865, he was promoted to brevet major.
His commander, Rutherford B. Hayes, called McKinley “one of the bravest and finest officers in the army.” Hayes wrote of McKinley: “Young as he was, we soon found that in the business of a soldier, requiring much executive ability, young McKinley showed unusual and unsurpassed capacity, especially for a boy of his age. When battles were fought or service was to be performed in warlike things, he always filled his place.”
Although the Presidents who served in the Civil War had very different careers, they all displayed similar traits. All were distinguished by their ability and intelligence. Those who served in combat were recognized for their courage under fire. All stood out for their ability and dedication, winning promotions for their gallantry and contributions. All saw their careers made by their war record. In the years following the Civil War, a candidate’s war record could make or break his chances for success at the polls.