Garfield was summoned to Washington when his health was restored. After several months of inactivity, he received an offer from General William Rosecrans, the commander of the Army of the Cumberland, to join his staff. Garfield arrived in February 1863, reporting to Rosecrans’s headquarters in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Rosecrans had just won a victory over Confederate General Braxton Bragg at Stones River and was planning to advance towards Chattanooga, a rebel stronghold.
While Rosecrans waited for more supplies, Garfield accepted the position of Chief of Staff to the Army of the Cumberland. He urged Rosecrans to move quickly while the weather was clear, but Rosecrans hesitated. Garfield grew impatient and urged his boss to send out some cavalry raids. Garfield got permission and planned two raids himself, but both met with failure. Heavy criticism came from the regular army generals on Rosecrans’s staff.
Washington became impatient as well. President Lincoln wired Rosecrans to move quickly against General Bragg and his forces. The commander called a meeting of his generals to get their opinion on an attack. Almost the entire staff cautioned Rosecrans about making any kind of an advance. Garfield, however, disagreed and wrote Rosecrans a detailed report explaining why an immediate attack would be successful. The report cited the weakness of the Confederate army due to Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. No additional Rebel troops could be spared. Rosecrans agreed with Garfield, calling for an assault June 24th. The plan had Garfield characteristics all over it, including simultaneous attacks from the flanks, then a major assault in the center. The plan caused confusion in the Confederate ranks and Bragg retreated 18 miles south the Tullahoma.
The Union army pressed forward. Chattanooga was in sight, but again Rosecrans hesitated another two months. Garfield believed another quick attack would destroy Bragg’s army. He wrote Secretary Chase citing his displeasure with his commanding officer. Finally, Rosecrans decided to advance towards Chattanooga. Using some tactics that were similar to Garfield’s successful Middle Creek campaign, Rosecrans’s men lit campfires for non-existent camps, floated wood downstream to give the appearance of building bridges, and sent cavalry behind Bragg’s line.
Bragg decided his position was hopeless and abandoned Chattanooga before Rosecrans got there. Encouraged by his success, Rosecrans ordered his divisions forward in pursuit of Bragg’s army. They crossed into Georgia, believing Bragg to be in full retreat. However, all the Union delays had given the Confederates time to reinforce Bragg. A sizeable army waited near the Chickamauga River, which included a division commanded by General James Longstreet. Realizing his mistake, Rosecrans called back his advancing army. He regrouped near Chickamauga, waiting for the Rebels to attack. On September 19, Bragg’s army advanced forward, much of the assault going against General George Thomas’s left flank. The fighting went on until nightfall with neither side gaining any significant ground.
Rosecrans met with his generals until the early morning plotting strategy. When a daylight arrived a messenger rode to headquarters and informed the staff that there was a large gap in the Union line. Without checking the situation, Rosecrans ordered General Wood to move his division out of line and to the left. Apparently Wood knew this was a mistake but decided to obey orders and not raise any questions. His movement created a true gap in the center of the Union line. Moments later Confederates led by General Longstreet poured through the center and got into the rear of Union defenses. This situation caused major panic in the center and right of the Federal positions. General Rosecrans mounted his horse and ordered a full retreat back to Chattanooga. While Garfield spoke with his commander, he heard orderly firing from the Union left and realized General Thomas was likely holding his ground.
Garfield urged Rosecrans to reorganize the remaining army and return to the fight to aid Thomas. There was little response from the commander, who appeared to have lost all hope. A few moments later Garfield mounted his horse, Billy, and rode toward General Thomas. He was one of the few Union generals to return to the battlefield. For the remainder of the day Garfield watched Thomas put on a brilliant defense in keeping the larger Confederate force from breaching his lines. Filled with optimism, Garfield telegraphed Rosecrans, urging him to send troops to Thomas for a counterattack. The reinforcements never arrived, only orders to abandon the position by nightfall.
Though Garfield had little to do with the battle, one of his officers would later say that he performed like a true General, giving encouragement to the troops throughout the fight. For his action a promotion to Major General would follow.
In the fall of 1863, Garfield left the army and returned to Washington, D.C., where he soon took his place in Congress. He would remain in the House of Representatives for seventeen years, until his 1880 election as the twentieth President of the United States. Despite re-entering civilian life, he never lost touch with the military. Garfield attended reunions of the 42nd Ohio until his death in 1881. He became close friends with General William Tecumseh Sherman. As President, he appointed Major Don Pardee of the 42nd to a federal judge position. Colonel Lionel Sheldon, who assumed command of Garfield’s old regiment, was given the job of territorial governor of New Mexico. Though long since gone from the army, Garfield remained a military man at heart.
-Scott Longert, Park Guide