Falling Stars: James A. Garfield and the Military Reputations of Generals Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, and Fitz John Porter

In September 1862, Brigadier General James A. Garfield received orders directing him to Washington, D.C. to confer with the War Department about his next assignment.   By the time the government summoned him to the nation’s capital, Garfield had ably led Union troops in the Sandy Valley Campaign and at the tail end of the bloody battle of Shiloh.  As of September 2, he was also a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.  (Voters of Ohio’s 19th Congressional District later overwhelmingly elected him to this office, but his Congress would not convene until December 1863, leaving him over a year left to serve in the Army.)  Garfield went to Washington expecting to quickly receive his next assignment and return to the field.  Instead, he languished there for months awaiting orders.  During that long and difficult period, he was directly involved in one of the most celebrated military trials in American history: the court martial of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter.   

James A. Garfield

Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield in 1862, the year he first met Irvin McDowell and also served on the Fitz John Porter court martial. (Library of Congress)

Porter, a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire and a West Point graduate, was a close friend and ally of the controversial commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.  Like McClellan, Porter was a loyal Democrat that believed slavery was sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution.  Not until southern states seceded did Porter and McClellan agree that the North needed to take up arms.  To them and many others, preservation of the Union, not abolition of slavery, was the North’s reason to fight. 

After serving in McClellan’s unsuccessful 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Porter and his V Corps received orders to reinforce Maj. Gen. John Pope’s new Army of Virginia in the Northern Virginia Campaign.  On August 29, 1862, Porter led his corps into the battle of Second Manassas (or Second Bull Run).  During the battle Pope sent orders instructing Porter and his corps to attack the flank and rear of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s wing of the southern Army of Northern Virginia.  Porter had also been ordered to maintain contact with another Union corps and knew he could not do so if making the attack Pope wanted.  Therefore, Porter elected not to attack.  General Pope ordered Porter to make the same attack on August 30, and when Porter did so, everything he feared the day before came to pass, including his corps being routed by a much larger Confederate force.  Furious, Pope accused Fitz John Porter of insubordination and relieved Porter of his command.  Though McClellan soon returned Porter to his command and he led it through the subsequent Maryland Campaign and the battle of Antietam, Porter was arrested on November 25, 1862 for his actions at Second Manassas.  By this time, President Abraham Lincoln had fired McClellan once and for all, so Porter’s closest ally was no longer in a position to help him. 

Fitz John Porter

Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter was a McClellan loyalist, which is almost surely why he was court martialed after the battle of Second Manassas. (Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, Gen. Garfield’s exile in Washington continued.  He spent time with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who, like Garfield, despised West Point-educated officers and considered them the bane of the army.  His truest friend during this period, however, was Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a fellow Ohioan who saw much of his younger self in Garfield.  As Garfield biographer Allan Peskin states: “Chase and Garfield hit it off splendidly from the start.  They had much in common: both admired Chase, despised copperheads [northern anti-war Democrats], and looked down on Lincoln…Garfield told Chase horror stories about the pro-Southern, proslavery West Point officers he had known, and Chase regaled Garfield with fresh tales of Lincoln’s incompetence.”  General Garfield soon accepted Chase’s invitation to stay in the Secretary’s home during his time in Washington, which means James A. Garfield was then living under the roof of one of the Lincoln administration’s most radically anti-Democrat,  anti-McClellan members.  Secretary of War Stanton, another Ohioan and close friend of Garfield’s during this period, was also disgusted with McClellan’s leadership and politics.  All were pleased that Lincoln had finally sacked “Little Mac,” but they still feared the influence of McClellanite generals in the Army—including Fitz John Porter. 

A second officer under scrutiny for his actions at Second Manassas was another Ohioan: Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell.  His command had been one of three merged to create Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia that was soundly defeated at Second Manassas.  McDowell came under criticism for his actions in that battle and requested a court of inquiry to clear his name.  While he was being investigated, McDowell, a Republican and virulent anti-McClellanite, was also called as a prosecution witness in the Porter court martial.  McDowell and McClellan despised one another, and since nearly everyone assumed the Porter trial was really aimed at McClellan, there was little doubt that McDowell would give damning testimony against Porter, both to harm McClellan’s reputation but also save his own.  As he prepared for his own court of inquiry, McDowell requested a meeting with Gen. Garfield to informally state his case. 

James A. Garfield left no doubt about his own anti-McClellan and anti-Porter feelings.  Even before being assigned to the Porter trial, Garfield had maligned McClellan in letters to family and friends.  He wrote his friend Harry Rhodes on September 22, 1862: “I am more disgusted at McClellan’s late operation of lying still a day and two nights after the great battle (Antietam), and letting the rebels cross the river and get safely away before he began the pursuit or renewed the attack.  It confirms my opinion of his utter want of audacity and vigor.  There is great bitterness here in regard to him.”  Surely McDowell knew that Garfield was a vocal Republican and a U.S. Representative-elect.  McDowell almost certainly sought the similarly-minded Garfield’s favor in an effort to gain an ally and save his own reputation and career. 

Irvin McDowell

Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell faced his own court of inquiry after Second Manassas. He sought an audience with Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield to explain his actions, and the two became lifelong friends. (National Archives)

Garfield wrote his wife, Lucretia, on October 3, 1862 and told her about his plans for the next day: “I shall spend the day with General McDowell, who will show me the history of the Virginia campaign.  I believe he has been greatly wronged.  The President and Cabinet know he is a true man but dare not come out before the people and vindicate him.”  According to this passage, Garfield had already made up his mind of McDowell’s innocence before even meeting with him.  Is it too great a leap to wonder if Garfield had also already determined Fitz John Porter’s guilt, if for no other reason than Porter’s loyalty to McClellan? 

Garfield wrote his wife again on October 7 to report on his meeting with McDowell.  He described McDowell as “a competent and reliable source” and stated: “I have never believed the absurd stories about McDowell’s being disloyal, or anything of that sort, but I was not prepared to find a man of such perfect, open, frank, manly sincerity.  I believe he is the victim of jealousy, envy, and most marvellous [sic] bad luck–luck that came exceedingly near being splendid success, but failing of that turned the other way.”

No doubt remains that by this time, before either the McDowell court of inquiry or the Porter court martial convened, James A. Garfield was squarely for Irvin McDowell.  He must, therefore, have been just as squarely against Fitz John Porter.  As if to remove any possible doubt, Garfield drafted a lengthy manuscript detailing the activities of McDowell, McClellan, and others during the Virginia campaign that resulted in the Union defeat at Second Manassas.  The document, published as an Appendix to The Wild Life of the Army: Civil War Letters of James A. Garfield, edited by Frederick D. Williams, is almost comically pro-McDowell and anti-McClellan.   

In it, Garfield writes that McClellan’s “loyalty has not been above suspicion…General McClellan made overtures to (Jefferson) Davis for a command before he was appointed to a position in the Union army…I consider him one of the weakest and most timid generals that ever led an army…I have no hope for the success of our arms in the East till McClellan is removed entirely from active command.”  Irvin McDowell, however, “is frank, open, manly, severe and sincere.  He is truly patriotic, but is not a politician…That he is a true brave man I have no doubt.  I like General Irvin McDowell.”  (Emphasis in original.)   After finishing this manuscript, Garfield sent it to his wife with the instructions, “I would like to have you…read this…But it must not get into any hands that will make it public.” 

Soon after writing this manuscript, Garfield was briefly assigned to the Court of Inquiry hearing General McDowell’s case.  Had anyone known of his obvious bias toward McDowell, Garfield might never have received this assignment.  However, he did not long remain on this case and was instead soon transferred to the much higher-profile court martial of Fitz John Porter.   As Garfield was just as anti-McClellan (and therefore anti-Porter) as he was pro-McDowell, his placement on this court might have been questioned if his developing friendship with McDowell had been public knowledge.  Of course, both Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, two of Garfield’s closest friends in Washington, wanted to see Porter convicted as a slap at McClellan.  Both also surely knew of Garfield’s animosity toward McClellan, so it is entirely possible that one or both of them pulled strings to place Garfield on the court martial to increase the likelihood of conviction.  General Porter, unaware of all of these machinations, was asked if he objected to any members of the court martial before the proceedings began.  He answered that he did not.  One wonders how strongly he might have objected to Garfield had he known all the details. 

George B. McClellan

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was a vocal Democrat who opposed secssion but also spoke his mind about what he saw as the shortcomings and mistakes of the Republican Lincoln administration. Fitz John Porter’s loyaly to McClellan cost him dearly. (National Archives)

According to historian Allan Peskin, Garfield “had no great personal animus against Porter…Everyone knew that the trial was aimed at McClellan…The unhappy Porter was to be the sacrificial goat for the sins of his chief (McClellan).”  Peskin further explains that many Republican military officers believed that officers who were Democrats were purposely dragging out the war in order to wear the country out and lead both sides to sue for peace, for which many Democrats had been advocating all along.  A rumor had also surfaced that during a critical moment of the battle of Second Manassas, Fitz John Porter had advised McClellan to withhold reinforcements since “we have (General John) Pope where we can ruin him.”  Porter’s rather arrogant attitude did not help him: he called Secretary Stanton an “ass,” referred to abolitionists as “our enemies in the rear,” and labeled Gen. Pope as a fool.  The court martial was also comprised entirely of general officers of volunteers like Garfield.  No West Pointers were permitted on the jury for fear they might have sympathy for their fellow alum Porter.  As Peskin writes, “It was not a friendly court, and Garfield could well have been considered a hanging judge.” 

The Porter court martial convened in December 1862.  James A. Garfield wrote to his friend Harry Rhodes on December 14, telling him that Irvin McDowell had just testified before the court martial for two days with “direct and crushing” testimony.  Garfield also told Rhodes: “On the whole I have a higher opinion of McDowell’s talents than of any other man’s in the army, and if he is again assigned a command I would prefer to go under him rather than any other.  His history will yet be vindicated.”  The case was complicated, as Peskin states: “The testimony was so tangled, the charges and countercharges so complex that years of patient investigation have not yet unraveled all of its intricacies.  To the members of the court, however, there was no doubt whatsoever of Porter’s guilt.  The only question in their minds was the proper sentence.” 

Despite some initial extreme suggestions that Porter be executed, James A. Garfield and the court eventually decreed that Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter be immediately dismissed from the United States Army and forever barred from holding any federal office.  Porter fought for his own vindication for the rest of his life, and two decades later his conviction was overturned.  Of course, the damage to his personal and military reputation was long since done.  Porter never forgave Garfield for his part in the sham court martial and was convinced that Garfield’s role in Porter’s disgrace was purely political.  For his part, James A. Garfield remained convinced that the court had done the right thing in its judgment against Porter, saying at one point years later, “No public act with which I have ever been connected was ever more clear to me than the righteousness of the finding of that court.”  Another member of the court, Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, agreed with Garfield’s assessment, stating “I am constrained to believe that under the circumstances our verdict was extremely light.” 

Major General Irvin McDowell was (predictably) exonerated by his Court of Inquiry.  Though he hoped to return to battlefield command against the Confederacy, he was instead basically exiled in the West, eventually becoming commander of the Department of the Pacific.  He remained lifelong friends with James A. Garfield and even visited Garfield at his Mentor, Ohio home on November 21, 1880, almost three weeks after Garfield was elected President of the United States.  Ten years prior to that visit, on August 3, 1870, James and Lucretia Garfield had welcomed their fifth child into the world.  The infant boy was named Irvin McDowell Garfield.   

Irvin M. Garfield family

The Irvin McDowell Garfield family. The Garfields’ fifth child (second from right, as an adult) was named for his father’s close friend, Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell. (Garfield family/NPS)

James A. Garfield, of course, later served the Union army with distinction as Chief of Staff to the Army of the Cumberland and then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years prior to his election to the presidency. 

George B. McClellan, fired for the second and final time by President Abraham Lincoln after the battle of Antietam, tried to avenge his reputation by running against Lincoln as the Democratic party’s presidential nominee in 1864.  He lost to Lincoln by nearly half a million popular votes and 191 electoral votes.  He served as Governor of New Jersey from 1878-1881.  Today, McClellan is recognized by historians as a master organizer of Union troops during the Civil War but is criticized (as he was at the time by Lincoln and others) for an apparent lack of zeal for actual fighting. 

The question of whether or not Garfield should have been permitted to serve as a juror on the Porter court martial remains.  Clearly he was biased against Fitz John Porter by his earlier statements against McClellan and then by his burgeoning friendship with Irvin McDowell.  Realistically, Garfield should probably have been forthright about his personal friendship with McDowell and, knowing that McDowell would be called to testify against Porter, recused himself from the Porter court martial.  Of course, it is also quite possible that Garfield’s friends in high places—namely, Secretaries Stanton and Chase—had him placed on the court specifically because of his biases against McClellan and Porter.  If that is true, Garfield may have knowingly allowed himself to be used for Stanton’s and Chase’s political purposes. 

Why did he fail to recuse himself?  One can only speculate, but Porter’s assertion that Garfield’s motivation was political is likely at least partially correct.  Garfield was a Brigadier General in the Union army, but, as his election to the House of Representatives should have made clear to everyone, he was also a partisan Republican that sought to discredit Democrats like McClellan and Porter.  He opposed them politically, of course, but also sincerely felt their ideas and policies were bad for the country.  He also genuinely liked and respected Irvin McDowell and probably viewed his own presence on the Porter court martial as a way to provide some cover and protection for his friend.  While we might accuse Garfield of a lack of impartiality here, we can also perhaps at least admire his loyalty to his friend.

James A. Garfield had his own reasons for failing to disclose his inability to be impartial in the case against Fitz John Porter.  Over 150 years later, we can look at the evidence and say that, even if we might agree with his reasoning, in this particular instance, Garfield was wrong.  The fact that he sometimes made mistakes and questionable decisions, though, makes him more human and therefore more accessible to us.  His humanity is what makes him a fascinating figure to study.  In this great but imperfect man, we can all see at least a little bit of ourselves.

 -Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

James A. Garfield in Muskingum County, Ohio

When I was a kid and we would drive down Back Run Road, just a few miles from our home, someone would always point out that the old shack across the creek was the log cabin where President Garfield had taught school. This announcement was intended to make an impression upon us, and I remember being duly impressed with our neighborhood’s brush with fame.

This fall when back home in Ohio for a visit, I began thinking about the Garfield school house again. Was there any truth to the legend? If so, why was Garfield in Muskingum County? What could I find out about this special moment of history?

As I began digging among the sources, I quickly struck a gold mine of information. James Garfield began writing a diary at the age of 16 and continued it throughout his life. The diary has been published in four volumes.

James A. Garfield kept a regular diary for much of his life.  This page shows his handwritten entry for March 4, 1881-the day he became the 20th President of the United States.  Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams edited the Garfield diaries for publication for Michigan State University Press in 1981.  (Library of Congress)

James A. Garfield kept a regular diary for much of his life. This page shows his handwritten entry for March 4, 1881-the day he became the 20th President of the United States. Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams edited the Garfield diaries for publication for Michigan State University Press in 1981. (Library of Congress)

Throughout Garfield’s life, from his birth in 1831 until his assassination as President in 1881, his life was grounded in his northeastern Ohio origins. However, he had roots in southeastern Ohio as well, in Muskingum County, both in Zanesville and in the southern part of the county. His parents were married in Zanesville. Both Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou had recently immigrated to Zanesville from the east coast with their families. The two had known each other as children and were reunited in Ohio. They were married February 3, 1820, and headed north to establish their common life in northeastern Ohio.

It was there that their children were born. James was the last child arriving, born on November 19, 1831. His mother had a heavy burden placed upon her when Abram died. James was 18 months old at the time. Even though he was recognized as a precocious learner, James’s early formal education was sporadic. Only after a brief stint towing boats on the Erie Canal was he able to begin a serious pursuit of an education.

Eliza Ballou Garfield raised her youngest son, James, and his older siblings alone after her husband died in 1833.  She was a strong influence on all of her children, and she encouraged the future President of the United States to pursue an education.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Eliza Ballou Garfield raised her youngest son, James, and his older siblings alone after her husband died in 1833. She was a strong influence on all of her children, and she encouraged the future President of the United States to pursue an education. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

In March 1849 James enrolled in Geauga Seminary, a Free Will Baptist school in Chester, Ohio. For the next two years he alternated between attending school and teaching school, presumably to pay for school costs.

At the end of his second teaching stint, we have the first mention of two different locations that become important to him. The February 24, 1851, diary entry includes, “I have given up going to Hiram and am going to Zanesville with Mother.” His mention of Hiram indicates almost certainly that he was considering enrolling in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a school in Hiram that later became Hiram College. He delayed beginning his studies at the Institute until August. In the meantime he accompanied his mother to Zanesville.

On February 27 the pair began their journey, traveling first to Cleveland, then taking the train to Columbus, the stage to Zanesville, and finally a skiff down the Muskingum River to Gaysport, arriving March 1.

Their destination was the home of Henry Ballou, brother of Eliza, where they would stay while in Muskingum County. However, there is no indication in the diary as to the location of the house. Garfield simply writes that he and his mother walked to the home from the river. Then he returned to the river with his cousin Orrin to retrieve their trunks.

Because there is no indication of the location of the home, most Garfield biographers have simply referred to Muskingum County as the location of the visit. However, Brown and Williams, the editors of the Garfield diary, in an attempt to be more specific, write in their introduction that it was at “Blue Rock in the Muskingum Valley where he and his mother had gone to visit her brother”. (page XVIII)

However, the evidence is decisively clear that neither Uncle Henry’s house nor the school where Garfield taught was in Blue Rock. The name Blue Rock is derived from the bluish tint of the stone in the area. Blue Rock Township lies east of the Muskingum River. Gaysport, the town where the Garfields disembarked, as well as the town of Blue Rock is in Blue Rock Township. Today, Gaysport is a tiny unincorporated village clustered near the bridge that crosses the river. However, there is one present day reminder of a more illustrious past. The newly built North Star Restaurant stands on the location of the former North Star Hotel, a prominent landmark that operated when the steamer ships hauled passengers and freight up and down the river and when Gaysport really was a port. The biographers apparently located Garfield in Blue Rock because it is the name of the area around Gaysport and Gaysport is the geographical locator in the diary.

However, the local tradition is that the house where the Garfields stayed is a brick house on Virginia Ridge Road which is west of the Muskingum River in Harrison Township. The two-story brick house is a classy home, typical of the kind of houses built by the well-to-do in the 19th century. The present owners, who are well informed about the Garfield saga, say that the house was built in 1849.

A modern view of the home built by Henry Ballou in which James A. Garfield and his mother, Eliza, stayed while James taught at Back Run School.  (Author photo)

A modern view of the home built by Henry Ballou in which James A. Garfield and his mother, Eliza, stayed while James taught at Back Run School. (Author photo)

In order to confirm that the house is “the Garfield house”, I did some research in the Muskingum County Recorder’s Office. I found that on January 22, 1839, Henry Ballou was granted the deed to 160 acres of land at the location where the house is today. With this information I am able to conclude that Henry Ballou did not live in Blue Rock, even though Brown and Williams placed him there. However, I was unable to determine a date for the construction of the house. Garfield’s May 26 diary entry suggests that the house has been built but is not completed. He writes, “Working nights and morning on the house and appurtenances.”

The skiff carrying the Garfields would have docked at Gaysport, and they would have disembarked there. Then they would have caught a ride across the river to Harrison Township and begun walking up the hill on Virginia Ridge Road, continuing for a mile to what is now 785 Virginia Ridge Road.

I was able to learn additional information about Henry Ballou in the 1892 edition of Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Muskingum County, Ohio. He and his sister Eliza Garfield were born in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. They immigrated to Muskingum County with their mother and three siblings in 1814. Henry eventually married and settled in Harrison Township and built a “permanent home”. He is listed as an outstanding citizen of Harrison Township where he was a farmer and township officer. He and his wife Phoebe had three sons – Jacob, Ellis, and Orrin. All three, along with their father, are mentioned in the Garfield diary. Most of James’s activities and travels during his Muskingum County stay, which include such things as working on the farm, traveling to McConnellsville, and going to meetings (church services), were done with his cousins.

However, the main activity of Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County was teaching school. On March 13 James wrote that he went with Uncle Henry “to see about getting the school in this place.” He writes that he “has a contract to teach school for three months. He will be paid $16 2/3 per month and will begin on March 19. First he must have a teaching certificate, and so he and Ellis take the team to Zanesville where he is examined and certified for two years to teach ‘the common branches and algebra.’”

On the first day of class he identifies the school as “the log schoolhouse on ‘backrun’.” The schoolhouse, which still exists today, is only a 5-10 minute walk from the house. That is apparently why he refers to it as “this school”.

The two structures are less than a half mile apart; however, they are separated by a very steep hill. The return walk back up to the house requires approximately twice as much time as walking downhill to the school. This hill and those nearby obviously made an impression upon the flatlander from northern Ohio as he writes that the schoolhouse is “on the bank of a rock-girt stream and surrounded by the everlasting hills of Muskingum Valley.”

There are two roads in the area today just as there were in the 19th century. They both run east and west and are relatively parallel. The house is on Virginia Ridge Road which follows the top of the ridge. The school house is on Back Run Road which follows along Back Run Creek in the valley. Even though the two buildings are in close proximity, it is an almost three-mile drive from one to the other.

The map below shows the relative location of the town site of Gaysport on the east side of the Muskingum River, the contemporary bridge crossing the river, and the two roads leading west from the river bottom, one along Back Run and the other rising to the top of Virginia Ridge. The location of the school and house are denoted. The slightly skewed red grid lines on the map provide a scale of distance as they demark one-mile by one-mile township sections.

This map denotes the locations of the home in which James and Eliza Garfield stayed and the school in which James taught during their stay in Muskingum County.  (Author image)

This map denotes the locations of the home in which James and Eliza Garfield stayed and the school in which James taught during their stay in Muskingum County. (Author image)


The school house is a small log structure approximately 18 feet long and 15 feet wide. There is no information concerning its date of construction, but it was apparently in poor condition even in 1851. In private correspondence Garfield refers to it as a “miserable old log school-house … as smutty as a blacksmith shop.” (Garfield – Allan Peskin, page 21) After its school-house life ended, it was converted into a home. Currently a new owner, John Coler, is restoring it back to its original form as a school. It has been stripped of all additions, and the owner is planning on replacing some foundation stones, some of the logs, and the roof.

Garfield’s diary reveals that his stint at Back Run School was neither easy nor pleasant. On March 14, even before he began to teach, he wrote, “It will not be a very pleasant school, the scholars will be so small.” They were few in number as well. He started with seven students, but gradually attendance increased to a maximum of 23. There are several entries referring to conflicts with parents. The parents objected to the way he conducted his classroom, and he grumbled about their efforts to override his leadership of the school.

Garfield’s journal entries are full of interesting teaching experiences. He comments about a boy who can recite his letters down but not up. He describes in detail the subterfuge two of his pupils undertook in order to elope without their parents discovering their plans. He discusses discipline in the classroom, the need to impose more order and eventually the need, as a last resort, to use the rod on two of the boys. He reports that this treatment was quite effective.

The April 16th diary entry is a window into Garfield’s self-perception as a teacher:

“It is indeed trying to my patience and also my stomach to have so many little scholars about me. I believe it is the province of females to teach little scholars the rudiments of education. Their nature seems to be more adapted to the culture of the infant mind thanthe nature of man. I want something that has the thunder in it,more than this has.”

The meaning of the word thunder used in this way is not certain, though he probably is reflecting on the drudgery, dullness, and lack of challenge that he felt as a teacher of young children. However, it is clear that he was not satisfied with his teaching job at Back Run School. (Immediately before coming to Muskingum County Garfield had taught at Warrenville, Ohio, in a two-room school. He had taught the older pupils which would have been more to his liking.)

Local historian Jim Swingle stands by the Back Run School (currently under restoration) with his brother and author of this blog article Albert Swingle on the right.  (Author photo)

Local historian Jim Swingle(left) stands by the Back Run School (currently under restoration) with his brother and author of this blog article Albert Swingle on the right. (Author photo)

Even though Garfield had contracted to teach for three months, he closed the school on May 20 after just over two months. By then corn planting season was in full swing and most of the students had deserted “book learning” and were working in the fields. It seems clear that after teaching at Back Run for two months, James was ready to move on. He and his mother, after concluding their visit with good-byes to friends and relatives, left Zanesville on May 30, returning home by canal boat on the Erie Ohio Canal, a section of which his father had helped build.

Three months is a short period in anyone’s life, but this Muskingum Country trip gives us a quick glimpse into the life of a remarkable 19-year-old young man on his way to maturity. Moving into unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people, Garfield demonstrated considerable curiosity as he energetically plunged into his new surroundings, whether they were new towns to explore, new forms of worship in the various meeting houses, or challenges he faced at the Back Run School. As he touched base with his extended family we see this Muskingum County visit as a short interlude for a young man in a hurry. He had not yet decided the direction of his adult life, but he knew that education would be the means of getting to his yet unknown destination.

Muskingum County was an opportunity for Garfield to expand his vision and to test his influence as he widened his horizons on his way to adulthood. In his illustrious life he did experience considerable thunder, and he created considerable thunder as well.

As a postscript to this visit, we have a record of at least two other trips Garfield made to Muskingum County. The November 9, 1877, diary entry records his train trip from home to Washington DC. The train stopped in Zanesville just long enough for a brief visit with his cousin Orrin Ballou and family. Orrin was the sheriff of Muskingum County from 1877-1880.

Few who knew or attended classes with teacher James A. Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County likely expected him to one day become President of the United States.  (Library of Congress)

Few who knew or attended classes with teacher James A. Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County likely expected him to one day become President of the United States. (Library of Congress)

By 1878 Garfield was in full campaign mode for the Republican Party. After a speaking tour on the east coast, he had just three days at home to supervise the sowing of the wheat crop on his Mentor farm before taking a swing around southeast Ohio. On September 20 he was on the train heading for Zanesville but missed his connection in Dresden (in northeastern Muskingum County). The Zanesville town fathers saved the day by sending a special train to Dresden to retrieve him. He arrived just in time for his evening address. He records in his diary: “Addressed large audience in Hall for 1 ½ hours then went homewith Cousin Orrin Ballou and spent the night. He is the county sheriff. 27 years ago he was my pupil in the school I taught in Back Run, Harrison Township, Muskingum County. He is a strong Democrat, inheriting his politics from his father, my Uncle HenryBallou.”

Two years later in 1880 James Garfield would be elected the 20th president of the United States.

-Albert Swingle, Washington, D.C.