The Front Porch Campaign of 1880

In 1880, the “surprise” presidential nomination of Ohioan James A. Garfield by the Republicans resulted in a campaign that, unlike any before it, regularly brought citizens and candidate face-to-face. It was conducted on the front porch of Garfield’s home.

Prior to 1880, it was considered undignified for anyone to actively seek the presidency. Nominees did not travel from state to state or city to city to tell voters that they had the solutions for the country’s problems. Expected to emulate the example of George Washington, they were to remain above the fray.  The sitting president, Rutherford B. Hayes, spoke to this tradition when he advised Garfield to “sit cross-legged and look wise until after the election.”

Traditionally, it was the Congressmen, Senators, and party workers who did the heavy lifting during presidential campaigns. It was they who traveled, they who spoke, they who organized evening torchlight parades, and more. Garfield honored these traditions. Meanwhile, he stayed home; he stayed put. But his 1880 campaign departed significantly from past practice.

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In 1880, James A. Garfield had represented his Ohio district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years.  He was also a U.S. Senator-elect when the Republicans chose him to be their presidential candidate that year.  (Library of Congress)

Arriving at his Mentor farm after his nomination at Chicago, Garfield was greeted by crowds of citizens. People who had known him from his days as a student, teacher, and Civil War officer came to wish him success. Newspaper reporters camped out on his lawn. Their accounts of the welcome Garfield received stimulated interest in his candidacy.

Farmers and businessmen, college students and women (unable cast ballots in 1880), immigrants and Union veterans, including a number of black veterans, came to see, came to hear, and came to meet the Republican nominee.

In the little campaign office behind his home, Garfield and his aides exchanged letters and telegrams with the leaders of groups to fix dates and times of arrival, and to exchange information, so that when they met, a group’s spokesman and Garfield could address each other with appropriate remarks.

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This is a modern image of the small exterior library building that James A. Garfield turned into a campaign office during his 1880 presidential campaign.  It is located just behind the main Garfield home, and visitors to James A. Garfield NHS are invited to step inside and see the office’s interior.  (NPS photo)

An estimated 15,000 to 17,000 citizens traveled to Mentor, Ohio (population: 540) to see and hear Garfield. From a train platform specially built to bring the people to the candidate, they literally walked a mile-and-a-half up a lane that extended the entire length of Garfield’s 160 acre farm. They walked up that lane in good weather and in bad, in sunshine and in showers.

Often, a “Garfield and Arthur” band was playing near the front porch when visitors arrived, adding excitement to the air. Poets read and singers sang. A Congressman, Senator, or local official would hail the Republican Party and Garfield.

Soon, the candidate would pass through the vestibule doors leading from the interior of his home to his porch. A designated group leader addressed him respectfully. Garfield would respond, eschewing political issues. He spoke instead to the identities and the aspirations of those gathered before him. His remarks were often brief, sometimes lasting no more than three or four minutes. From the porch serving as his podium, Garfield discussed “The Possibilities of Life,” “The Immortality of Ideas,” and “German Citizens.”

As a teacher, soldier, Congressman, and Republican presidential nominee, James Garfield wrestled with the matter of race. It was as difficult an issue for his generation as it is for ours.  Still, he supported the right of African-Americans to be free, to be equal with whites in the eyes of the law, and to be treated with justice. In his remarks on “The Future of Colored Men,” Garfield spoke to 250 such citizens assembled on his lawn in October 1880.

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These African American Civil War veterans visited James A. Garfield’s Mentor, Ohio property during the 1880 “front porch” presidential campaign.  The Garfield home is visible in the background.  Garfield was one of the few Republicans still openly talking about race and civil rights as late as 1880.  (NPS photo)

“Of all the problems that any nation ever confronted,” he said, “none was ever more difficult than that of settling the great race question… on the basis of broad justice and equal rights to all. It was a tremendous trial of the faith of the American people, a tremendous trial of the strength of our institutions…” that they had survived a brutal and bloody civil war; that freedom had been won for the enslaved as a result; that the promise of fair treatment was to be the inheritance of the freedmen.

When, late in the campaign, he stood before his “Friends and Neighbors” from Portage County, Ohio, he revealed the tender side of his nature, and his appreciation for the life he’d been given. To this audience, composed of the many who had helped to form the fabric of his being, he offered these thoughts:

“Here are the school-fellows of twenty-eight years ago.

Here are men and women who were my pupils twenty-

five years ago… I see others who were soldiers in the

old regiment which I had the honor to command… How

can I forget all these things, and all that has followed?

How can I forget…the people of Portage County, when

I see men and women from all its townships standing at

my door? I cannot forget these things while life and

consciousness remain. The freshness of youth, the very

springtide of life… all was with you, and of you, my

neighbors, my friends, my cherished comrades… You

are here, so close to my heart… whatever may befall me

hereafter…”

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A common scene during the 1880 front porch campaign: Garfield and family members sitting on the front porch of their Mentor, Ohio farmhouse.  Left to right: Eliza  Ballou Garfield (James Garfield’s mother); James Garfield; Mollie Garfield (President and Mrs. Garfield’s 13-year-old daughter); and Mrs. Lucretia Garfield.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

And then, as he had so often done before, James Garfield invited his guests to linger in friendly communion: “Ladies and gentlemen, all the doors of my house are open to you. The hand of every member of my family is outstretched to you. Our hearts greet you, and we ask you to come in.”

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

(Park Ranger Alan Gephardt wrote this article in January 2016 for the blog of PBS’s American Experience to coincide with the February 2 national broadcast of Murder of a President, their excellent documentary about President Garfield and his tragic 1881 assassination.)

A Private Chapter of the War, Part II

Bailey remains at the Smith plantation for most of the month of August.  Lybyer leaves after about two weeks, guided by a runaway slave named Jim.  When he returns, Bailey decides, using Jim as his guide, to try to reach the Union rear by moving east, which he sees as the rebel right flank, past the Union left, and then north toward Conyers Station on the North Georgia railroad, eight miles away.  But Sherman had moved north and west after the battle in which Bailey was captured, and at the end of August he began a wide sweeping movement around the west side of Atlanta and turning south to cut the railroad below the city.  Local intelligence was that the Federal troops were retreating to Chattanooga.  Bailey decides that a tactical retreat is in order—to the farm of a family named Freeman.  He had encountered the Freemans on the way to Conyers Station.  They were a poor white farm family working land that they did not own.  He arrived there on the night of August 31-September 1.  There he stayed until September 9, when he retreated further, to the Smith farm he had left on August 29.

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General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who captured Atlanta and made “Georgia howl” with his famous “March to the Sea” to capture the city of Savannah.  (Library of Congress) 

September 10.  …Confederate cavalrymen and stragglers on foot are wandering about from plantation to plantation, purchasing pigs, corn, chickens, potatoes, etc.  They report that the ‘whole army is encamped at Jonesboro’ (on the railroad, only twelve miles eastward).  “The Atlanta army fallen back!”  The writer immediately determined that Smith’s was no place for him.  He yearned for the other flank—the right flank of the Federals—as the rebels were manifestly being pressed eastward.  At all events, he discovered that he was now among the enemy, and either flank would be preferable to the center… There’s no delusion this time—Sherman’s in Atlanta!  Our cavalry raiders will certainly “hang about” the rebel flanks…

While attempting to flank the Confederate forces, Bailey and his guide, Jim, encounter a runaway slave couple.  The man has a carbine that he took from the body of a Union soldier who drowned attempting to ford a river.  Bailey convinces him that he would be in more danger if he is found with the gun, and as Union property, it would be wise for the slave to turn the gun over to him.  For the first time since his capture on July 22, Lieutenant Bailey is now armed.  On September 11, he was at the Freeman farm once again.  Jim was sent to gather intelligence.

October 7.  Bailey finally leaves the Freeman farm, along with Jim, with the goal of reaching Lithonia, and the North Georgia Railroad.  They are told the Federal forces are at Decatur, but that there are Texas Rangers roaming through the area searching for deserters and runaway slaves.  After midnight Bailey and Jim reached the railroad just west of Lithonia, fifteen miles from Decatur.  “No halting, no resting, no lagging; we are between the lines of two armies, and daylight will find us at Decatur, or worse.”

Daylight did find them in the Union fortifications a quarter mile east of Decatur.  They “are vacated—campfires still smoking, but the Federals gone.  Smiling Hope had beckoned us on, only to make despair the more certain.  The coveted Federal lines at last, and nothing to greet us but the refuse of a camp and smoldering remnants of campfires with which were kindled by friends! Despondent—hungry—footsore—cheated—exhausted—chafed—irritated—lacerated—drooping in the gloom of faded hopes.”

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Confederate artillery set up to defend Atlanta in 1864.  (Wikipedia)

During the day Bailey and Jim are overtaken by a pair of armed deserters, one in butternut, the other dressed in blue.  Bailey is again a captive, and disarmed; his captors make it clear that they have no intention of treating him as a prisoner of war.  Late in the afternoon one of them says, “My friend, this is as good a place to die as any man could wish.”  Given an opportunity to pray before dying, Bailey decides that “it’s manifestly too late to pray ‘deliver us from evil;’ God helps those who help themselves.”  Bailey runs.  Three shots were fired at him in rapid succession, and a fourth later.  The second shot threw Bailey to the ground, entering his right shoulder, passing through his shoulder blade and penetrating his lung.  But he got up and ran on.  After the captors had fired all their loaded weapons, Jim ran as well, soon catching up with Bailey.  The two of them staggered through the woods until sunset.  Bailey sees the light of a farmhouse and tells Jim, “I believe I am mortally wounded.  But if I’m mistaken, Jim, that light—that house—whatever it is—is my last chance for life.  I know I can’t live in the woods through this night.  I know it.  Take me to that house.”

The house belonged to a widow named Carrie E. Hambrick, who, with her sister, took Bailey in and nursed him overnight.  Jim, meanwhile, was sent to find the Federal forces.  By mid-day, October 9, a force of about 150 Federal troops, with an ambulance and surgeon arrived. “Ah! Lieutenant, we’ve come for you!”  Almost immediately the room was filled with officers and soldiers…faithful Jim in the midst of them.

Our little column passed through Decatur, and another little jaunt of six miles brought us to Atlanta.  Atlanta!  That “Hood had made up his mind to hold at all hazards.”  Atlanta!  That “the Yankees can never take, sir.”  Atlanta! before whose gates the rescued soldier, while concealed in distant Southern forests, had so often heard the thunder of Federal cannon.  Atlanta!  At peace beneath the flag of the stripes and stars.  As we neared the fortifications, the escorted ambulance passed the battlefield of July 22nd, and over the very road beside which its wounded occupant was captured, which spot was immediately identified with much interest; but the grand feast to his bedimmed vision was the sight of the old flag.  How majestically it floated where before he had seen only “stars and bars.”  Never before did the flag of the Union appear so bright and glorious; never was he prouder of the uniform he wore; never so desirous of witnessing a vigorous prosecution of the war for the Union; never before so appreciative—so delighted—so comfortable—so safe—so satisfied under the glorious old stars and stripes.

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An Atlanta home bearing the scars of battle in 1864.  (CivilWar.org)

A month later George Bailey was at home in St. Louis.  Fifteen years later he wrote his “Private Chapter,” to which he added this coda:

The writer respectfully submits that, from the facts within his limited experiences as herein related, the following conclusions may readily be reached:
I.  That the whole South was not in sympathy with the war against the Union; that there was much in the Southern maxim, “The rich man’s war, and the poor man’s fight;”  and that in numberless instances the poor were the mere victims of circumstances which placed them under the control of the aristocracy of wealth, and that while necessity forced action, very many of the actors bore no real enmity against the government; that with them it was not a matter of choice, but they were mere floaters on the tide of public sentiment, which their standing on the social scale permitted them neither to control nor to stem.

  1. That the negroes at the South, as a class, were opposed to the enemies and true to the friends of our government, and were ever ready and willing to render aid and comfort and to make cheerful sacrifices, by day or by night, for our unfortunate straggling “boys in blue,” to whose interests and welfare they generally evinced a remarkable degree of fidelity.

III.  That localities should not always be condemned because of the unlawful acts of a few; for the vicinity that produces outlaws and fiends to wound, may also be capable of furnishing angels to save and comfort the wounded.

  1. That nobility of soul cannot be bound within the narrow confines of sectional prejudices, but, when opportunity is presented, is capable of asserting itself in spite of bitter enmities naturally engendered by civil war.
  2. That among the real enemies of the government there were at least a few whose prowling proclivities found “duties” at the rear, as a pretext to avoid the dangers which threaten soldiers at the front—beast of prey in human form, whose cowardly instincts compelled them to seek only safe opportunities to vent their spleen against the government by adding the crime of murder to that of treason.
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The copy of Bailey’s “A Private Chapter of the War” sent by the author to Republican presidential candidate–and Union veteran–James A. Garfield in 1881.  (NPS photo)

 

Tellingly, Bailey’s memoir is dedicated “To Mrs. Carrie E. Hambrick of Atlanta, Ga., whose nobility of soul manifested itself in rising above surrounding prejudices and circumstances, proving superior to them, by extending welcome and bestowing aid and comfort upon a helpless stranger whom the misfortunes of war brought to her door, and whose life was preserved by her motherly care, sympathy, and encouragement,…”

But why did George Bailey send a copy of his book to General Garfield, then the Republican candidate for President of the United States?  Was it simply “veteranizing” (a usage coined by Sherwood Anderson)—one old soldier to another? Or did Bailey hope that the conclusions he reached, based on his experience of the war, would be meaningful in the political context of the presidential campaign.  We do not know if he sent a copy to Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic nominee, and another Union veteran.  Nor do we know if Garfield read his book.

What we can say with some confidence is that Bailey’s “Private Chapter of the War” taught him things that he felt were unique and worth sharing fifteen years after the event.  Even if George Bailey’s conclusions did not add to the political conversation of 1880, they were important then and they remain relevant today.  We are glad they are here, preserved in the library of our twentieth president.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

A Private Chapter of the War, Part I

When Johnny comes marching home again

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We’ll give him a hearty welcome then

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The men will cheer and the boys will shout

The ladies they will all turn out

And we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

 

Get ready for the Jubilee,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We’ll give the hero three times three,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The laurel wreath is ready now

To place upon his loyal brow

And we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

 

Written and published in 1863, this optimistic song lifted the spirits of Americans north and south during the final, difficult years of the Civil War.  Those at home may have expected Johnny to return older, perhaps a bit battle-worn, but essentially unchanged from the enthusiastic patriot or the reluctant conscript they had sent off to war.

But the men were changed, each in his own way, based on his own experience;  all in ways that they could not readily share as they tried to readjust to civilian life.  Each had his own “private chapter in the war;” but most, according to a Wisconsin officer “thought only of how [they] could best take up the pursuits of peaceful industry.”  They “had then no inclination to study the comparative analysis of the war, or the proper bearing it had upon our country and race.”  As much as the country was in need of reconstruction, the war’s veterans were in need of what Gerald Linderman, author of Embattled Courage, called “hibernation”—a period of quiet when each man could reflect on his experience and try to come to terms with it.  For more than a decade veterans remained quiet. Linderman explains, “Disturbing memories were to be kept to oneself, not to be aired publicly to relieve the sufferer and certainly not to correct public misapprehension of the nature of combat.”

Eventually, though, what Linderman calls a “revival” began.  Around 1880, commemorations, publications, and organizations of veterans proliferated.  Individual soldiers told their stories, wrote their memoirs, and shared their experiences.  George W. Bailey of St. Louis, Missouri wrote A Private Chapter in the War in 1880.  His slim volume, he said,  “presents a limited inside view of a portion of the Confederacy within its military lines, as secretly observed by a ‘stray’ from the invading army in blue, whose experiences disclose the real political sentiments of fair samples of different classes who resided within the Confederacy during the war…”  He sent a copy of his book to “Gen. Jas. A. Garfield, with compliments of the author” sometime that year.  It is now part of the collection in the Memorial Library at James A. Garfield NHS.

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First Lieutenant George W. Bailey, author of A Private Chapter of the War, as seen in 1864.  This image was taken from the copy of Bailey’s book sent to James A. Garfield in 1880.  (NPS photo)

Bailey, writing in the present tense, begins his story on July 22, 1864, before Atlanta, Georgia.  He identifies himself as a first lieutenant and aide-de-camp on the staff of Major General Morgan L. Smith, commander of the Second Division, Fifteenth Army Corps.  Captured in the midst of battle by Confederates who had overrun the Union position through an undefended railroad cut, Bailey, with perhaps eighty other officers and “a great number of soldiers” was taken under guard toward Atlanta.

“An excited rebel soldier amuses the citizen spectators by trailing one of our captured flags in the dust behind his horse…Women taunted us with, ‘Ah, boys you’ve got into Atlanta at last, haven’t you?’  Everybody seemed crazed with delight…Men, women and children gaze at us good-naturedly; but occasionally there are countenances sneering with scorn or pale with hatred.”

The Union prisoners were quickly moved out of the city, heading south, toward Andersonville.

July 25. “Continued silence in the direction of Atlanta.  What was the result of the battle?  What does this silence mean?…One genius said, ‘The Yankees can’t fight for a while; all the live ones are busy burying the dead ones.’ (Astounding announcement—astute sentry!) How long are we going to be kept in this miserable place?  How long are we to be kept on quarter-rations?   Nobody seemed to know.  We know that exchanges of prisoners had ceased because of a misunderstanding or disagreement concerning the status of negro troops…The gloomy prospect of Andersonville loomed up again.  Horrifying contemplation.  A careful mental consideration and adjustment of chances for life resulted in favor of a desperate attempt to escape, rather than attempt to survive Andersonville.”

Andersonville_Prison

Andersonville, Georgia was the location of the Confederacy’s most notorious and deadliest prison for Union POWs.  Thousands of northerners died here from exposure, malnutrition, and simple neglect.  Lt. Bailey was understandably eager to avoid ever stepping foot in Andersonville.  (Library of Congress)

July 26.  [Bailey decides to] “escape by way of burial…Trusty comrade officers assist.  Tin cup, muscles, will, calculating ingenuity, friendly suggestions, briars cut to be stacked in the earth concealing the writer and present uninviting appearance to pedestrians, …Boughs and grass were gathered; the adventurer fitted in; satisfaction.  ‘All right, cover up.”  First came grass and boughs, then—‘Oh, here Lieutenant, here are some things you’ll need.’  Col. Scott presented some maps (linen) of the country, rolled up in which was a small pocket-compass…A canteen was also presented, and served as a substitute for a pillow.”

Bailey was carefully concealed under earth, grass, and artfully arranged briars, with a packet of rations buried near his head.  The column moved out the next morning, and a short time thereafter a hog helped itself to the buried rations.  Bailey waited and listened until at least mid-day, when it began to rain and his “grave” became untenable as a hiding place. So he pushed himself up and out, and almost immediately discovered another Union soldier, a six foot tall seventeen-year-old named Lybyer.  According to Bailey, when asked how the young man had escaped, his answer was “I was asleep in a brush-pile.  I didn’t wake up until after they’d gone; then I thought I’d go the other way.”

On the evening of July 27th, the day of his escape, Bailey and Lybyer attempt their first contact with local slaves, which Bailey describes this way:  “Hungry. Twilight; we approach the road.  A mansion; negro cabins in rear.  Objectives—the blacks.  A whispered consultation; we are unanimous in our opinion that the blacks are our friends…”  Their faith was rewarded.  The two escapees were sheltered, fed and supplied by a nameless women who told the men that they were the first Yankees she had ever seen, and that they would find all the blacks in the area friendly, and could be depended upon for help.

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Enslaved African Americans proved to be invaluable to Bailey and Lybyer as they hid from Confederates and tried to avoid recapture and being sent to Andersonville.  (Georgia Encyclopedia)

July 31. “No news; no encouraging sounds of cannon—ominous silence Atlantaward—doubts, fears, speculations, conjectures, ignorance—enemies in enemy’s country—thoughts of home, of friends, of companions in arms, of chances of meeting them again, of glowing firesides, of beaming countenances, all in contrast with the present. Raining.”

The next day the escapees discover a substantial plantation, with several slave cabins some distance behind and not visible from the main house.  They hide near a pathway until a field hand comes by.  Calling out to him, they determine that again, Bailey and Lybyer are the first Yankees the slave has seen, and that the plantation’s black population will be friendly and accommodating.  They are told to remain hidden until dusk, when they can be safely brought into one of the cabins.

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James A. Garfield’s copy of George W. Bailey’s A Private Chapter of the War.  (NPS photo)

August 1.  Determining location—twenty-four miles a little east of south from Atlanta.  Federal raids had caused the Confederates to closely guard every mill and cross-road of importance in the vicinity.  The guards could unite in the defense of any threatened point, and they also served to prevent suspected stampedes of negroes to the Federal lines.  Negroes who had recently returned from the ‘front’ reported that the Federals were expected ‘in these parts ‘fore long.’…Basing action upon the uncertainty of the situation at Atlanta and the certainty of danger ahead, and upon the fact of weariness—meaning exhaustion,–and the liability of falling into worse keeping, we concluded to remain encamped nearby until possessed of further information.  The negroes clapped their hands with joy at our decision, promising to render any assistance possible.

The plantation belongs to a committed Confederate named Smith, who lives in the main house with his wife, daughters, and a son who is at home on leave from the Confederate army, recovering from a wound.

(Check back soon for Part II of this article!)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

James A. Garfield and a Black Washingtonian, Part II

After the war, Wormley had become so successful that, in 1869, he purchased the initial portion of the previously mentioned Wormley Hotel main building, located at the SW corner of 15th and H Streets to add to his business locations. He then alternately referred to the original collection of five boarding houses and a restaurant on I Street as the “Annex” and the “Branch Hotel”. While Garfield was spreading his national image and building his house in the city, Wormley’s newest structure had become the privately owned, yet public, seat of political maneuvering, high society and statesmanship in the District.

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869.  (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869. (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

As a military and political leader in support of the rights of Blacks, Garfield had to be in touch with Wormley fairly frequently. Unfortunately, since this research regarding Garfield has just begun we have not, as yet, uncovered expansive direct information about their personal relationship. We do know that as Mr. Garfield entered upon his life in the White House the existence of the relationship became more widely known.

In the fall of 1879 John Hay and his wife had taken up a two month residence at Wormley’s Hotel while they waited for their new home a block away on H Street to be finished. Just a few years previously in this same building it was reported that the Presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes had been negotiated. During the period 1880 to 1881 the patrons of the hotel included famous and wealthy aristocrats like the Astors, Henry Adams, the Alexander Graham Bell family, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Garfield’s presidential election Democratic opponent General Winfield Scott Hancock, Robert Lincoln and family and the Hawaiian Annexation Commission.

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries during the Civil War.  President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881 while Hay was staying at Wormley's Hotel, but Hay declined.  John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.  (Library of Congress)

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881, but Hay declined. John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)

During his Presidency Garfield appointed several close black friends of Wormley to prominent federal appointments including Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, and Blanche K. Bruce. The well known Post Office “Star Route Scandal” investigations originating under Garfield’s administration included an allegation that Henry Bowen attempted a $25,000 bribe while at the hotel. Garfield’s Postmaster Thomas L. James, charged by Garfield to clean out the corruption, was a Wormley’s patron and was honored at a banquet at the hotel on March 16, 1881 which was attended by members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court.

Garfield, as part of his pre-inauguration activities on the evening of March 3, 1881, spoke at the hotel to his fellow Williams College alumni and is quoted as saying, “…Tonight I am a private citizen. Tomorrow I shall be called to assume new responsibilities and, on the day after, the broadside of the world’s wrath will strike.”

For the next few months the new President would settle into his duties at the White House, which brings us to Saturday, July 2, 1881, the day of his shooting. After the attack by Charles J. Guiteau, the President was brought to the White House to minister to his wounds. Among the early attendees to the needs of the President was James Wormley. James had been known to be called to attend to the care of many prominent men of the 19th century including President Lincoln after his shooting and also to attend to his son Willie who had lain dying in the White House nearly 20 years earlier. According to many accounts Wormley also had been a “nurse” to political luminaries the likes of Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Sumner and many others. As likely the most famous caterer and nurse of his time, James was asked to care for the needs of Garfield as he lay attempting to recuperate from his wounds and the ministrations of his physicians in the White House.

A look at James A. Garfield's March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley's Hotel.  Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day.  (Library of Congress)

A look at James A. Garfield’s March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley’s Hotel. Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day. (Library of Congress)

According to an article in the New York Herald dated July 26, 1881, Wormley was immediately sought out to prepare the meals of the President by the attending physician, Dr. Willard Bliss. One of the foods most requested by the President was something called “beef tea.” This concoction was prepared from the finest tenderloin available. The meat was placed upon a broiling iron, not to cook but to sear the surface. It was then placed into a mechanical press provided from Wormley’s which compressed the meat with a pressure of 300-400 pounds until all the juices had been squeezed out of the steak. The juice or “tea” according to contemporary sources was one of the most nutritious foods provided to the President as he attempted to recuperate. Multiple news accounts, such as that in the Times Picayune on August 9, 1881, report that most of the foods provided for the suffering President came from Wormley’s farm and country homes on Pierce Mill Road on the outskirts of the city.

Despite the best care available and the aid of mechanical appliances devised by inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, the President died on September 19, 1881. Wormley, as an expression of his sorrow, commissioned a large white funerary bouquet in the shape of an angel holding a silver trumpet and about the size of a five year old child which was suspended above the coffin as the President lay in state.

The body was transported to Cleveland in a train from Washington with members of the family. It was followed approximately 20 minutes later by a train for dignitaries. This train was catered by James Wormley and his staff as it made its way to Cleveland. This catering for the train resulted in a bill for liquors, wines and lunches in an amount exceeding $1,700.00 and was the source of some consternation as reported in the Daily Globe on March 29, 1882.

Garfield’s Vice President and successor, Chester A. Arthur, had already been a patron of Wormley’s and that continued throughout his administration. One of the most important accomplishments of Garfield and, ultimately, Arthur was the viable creation of the Civil Service Commission. The first meetings of the Commission were held in the rooms of Chairman Dorman B. Eaton at Wormley’s.

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley's became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley’s became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881. (Library of Congress)

James Wormley survived Garfield for only a few short years, dying from complications from surgery in Boston in 1884. It seems that both of these significant men would have survived but for the relatively primitive medical procedures undertaken on their behalf. Perhaps the scholarship around these two men will bring greater illumination to how the leader of the nation would have engaged in regular intercourse with a Black man in our nation’s capital over their twenty years of daily prominent existence within a few blocks of each other.

-Donet D. Graves, Esq., Volunteer Contributor

James A. Garfield and a Black Washingtonian, Part I

On Friday evening, July 1, 1881, Charles Guiteau was skulking on Lafayette Square opposite the White House, trying to find his best opportunity to carry out his crazed ambition: the death of President James A. Garfield. That evening, according to his own statement, Guiteau felt he had a splendid chance to achieve his objective. The President had come out of the White House alone and was walking north along the east side of the Square passing in front of the former Washington Club (which became the home of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward) and the Dolley Madison House, where Gen. George B. McClellan lived for several months in 1861-62. Turning east on H Street the President walked the short distance to the next corner of 15th and H Street to the residence of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, which he entered.

Map showing the route President James A. Garfield took to Secretary Blaine's house the evening of July 1, 1881.  Charles Guiteau followed the President as he pondered the assassination attempt he would make the following day.  (Author's image)

Map showing the route President James A. Garfield took to Secretary Blaine’s house the evening of July 1, 1881. Charles Guiteau followed the President and pondered the assassination attempt he would make the following day. (Author’s image)

Guiteau following nearby, and after checking the readiness of his gun, took up a vantage point directly across the street by sitting on the front stoop of Wormley’s Hotel. This building was the flagship of African American entrepreneur James Wormley’s renowned hospitality enterprises in Washington.

This ca. 1884 image shows Wormley' Hotel and the approximate seat Guiteau occupied the evening of July 1, 1881.  (Author's image)

This ca. 1884 image shows Wormley’ Hotel and the approximate seat Guiteau occupied the evening of July 1, 1881. (Author’s image)

According to reportage in the New York Herald, Guiteau waited at this location for one half-hour for the President to emerge. Unfortunately for the assassin, the President came out of the house with Secretary Blaine, directly opposite where Guiteau was waiting in ambush. The two men walked arm-in-arm along the same path in the opposite direction taken by the President earlier that evening, returning to the White House. With Secretary Blaine on the left side of the President between the assassin and his target, it seemed that even after days of trailing the President, this would no longer be the optimum time for the attempt. Unfortunately the assassin did not have long to wait and completed his attack on the President the next day, Saturday July 2, at the Baltimore and Ohio railroad depot.

Interestingly, as we begin to report here, this was not the first occasion when the lives of this leader of the United States and his African American business acquaintance became intertwined. James Wormley’s reputation as a nurse, caterer and hotelier had already been widespread, both nationally and internationally, in the decade prior to the Civil War. Beginning with Buchanan’s administration James Wormley, the son of a free Black couple who had arrived in Washington in 1814, had operated a row of boarding houses and his restaurant from his properties on I Street NW between 15th and 16th Streets.  This location was just one block to the north of Lafayette Square just beyond St. John’s church (sometimes referred to as the President’s Church). At that time James’s businesses as a restaurateur and hotelier were in addition to his duties as the steward for the Washington Club on Lafayette Square during the 1850s. The patrons of this Club had included men like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Charles Sumner, William Corcoran and some of the most powerful men from both the North and South.

Before he was president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis spent years in Washington, D.C. as a Senator and presidential cabinet member.  During those years, he was a frequent guest to Wormley's.  (

Before he was president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis spent years in Washington, D.C. as a Senator and presidential cabinet member. During those years, he was a frequent guest to Wormley’s. (History.com)

 

All the while, from its propitious location on I Street, Wormley’s had become one of the favorite places for the leading citizens of the capital city where they could find the finest accommodations and delicious food. Prior to the war General Winfield Scott had made those houses his Washington residence. In May 1860 Wormley was engaged to cater the first Japanese Commission to visit the United States on their trip to Washington aboard the Steamer Philadelphia from Old Point Comfort, Virginia. Once they left the capital he once again was engaged to have his staff attend to the culinary wishes of these foreign dignitaries as they proceeded to Philadelphia. As an illustration of the high regard for his accommodations, Senator Wigfall from Alabama had set up his household at Wormley’s in the winter of 1860 which was outlined in a book by his daughter. She described James’ boarding house as “… a synonym for delightful living and in even those days the acme of comfort”.

When General McClellan was living in the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square during his tenure as head of the Union Army he was a regular and frequent patron of James’s dining rooms. In a letter to his wife on August 23, 1861 the general told his wife: “We (the general and his staff) take our meals at Wormley’s, a colored gentleman who keeps a restaurant just around the corner on I St.” On November 20 of that year, in an article in the Evening Star, Col. John H. Forney gave a dinner there for about 50 gentlemen including the Secretary of War, several army generals, and John Hay and John Nicholay, the private secretaries to President Lincoln.

Like many of the nation’s prominent figures, while Garfield served in the House of Representatives he would also have likely partaken of Wormley’s hospitality. Members of the Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court, foreign delegations, artists, financiers and Congressmen would tend to come to this famous establishment to live, to eat some of the finest food available, to conduct private political meetings and to be seen at the “in” place in Washington. In September 1868 Wormley and his staff catered the wedding of Robert Todd Lincoln (Garfield’s future Secretary of War) and then, the next day, the wedding train to New York. Robert’s mother Mary and his brother Tad were also in attendance.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln's sons to survive to adulthood.  He was Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield and was in the building when Charles Guiteau shot the president on July 2, 1881.  Thriteen years before, James Wormley catered Robert Lincoln's wedding.  (Library of Congress)

Robert Todd Lincoln was the only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four sons to survive to adulthood. He was Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield and was in the building when Charles Guiteau shot the president on July 2, 1881. Thriteen years before, James Wormley catered Robert Lincoln’s wedding. (Library of Congress)

 

In 1869, after six years of living in Washington as a Congressional representative from Ohio, Garfield and his wife built a house just two blocks east of Wormley’s on I Street at the corner of 13th Street.  His Congressional colleagues from Ohio, Americus V. Rice and Frank H. Hurd, would spend some of their years in the city taking up residence at the hotel, additionally leading to the conjecture about the visits to Wormley’s from Garfield. His good friend, former Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, who was also a customer and friend of Wormley, was named Treasury Secretary by Lincoln. In fact, James Wormley was frequently called upon to cater meals for several Cabinet members such as Gideon Welles, William H. Seward and Edward Bates. James Wormley was so fond of anti-slavery activist Chase that in 1872 he purchased the portrait of then Chief Justice Chase, which had been commissioned by Jay Cooke.

(Check back soon for Part II.)

-Donet D. Graves, Esq., Volunteer Contributor

What’s in a Name?: National Park Service Areas in Ohio

I am sure this was a question asked many times by the Garfield children as they acted out Shakespearian plays in their parlor, but it is a question that can also be asked about the various units of the National Park Service.

In Ohio, there are 12 National Park Service sites, and while we are all a part of the same agency, there are several different types of sites, such as: National Historic Sites (like James A. Garfield, William Howard Taft, Fallen Timbers and Fort Miamis, or First Ladies), National Parks (Cuyahoga Valley), National Historical Parks (Hopewell Culture or Dayton Aviation), National Memorials (David Berger), Memorials (Perry’s Victory and International Peace), National Historic Trails (North Country or Natonal Aviation), and National Monuments (Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers).

The Arrowhead is the official insignia of the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior agency that administers all of the National Parks in Ohio and across the nation.  There are currently 401 sites in all 50 states and in several U.S. territories as well.  (NPS image)

The Arrowhead is the official insignia of the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior agency that administers all of the National Parks in Ohio and across the nation. There are currently 401 sites in all 50 states and in several U.S. territories as well. (NPS image)

You may be wondering what the big difference is if we’re all National Parks.

Let’s start with what we are, a National Historic Site. The NPS designates a site as a National Historic Site if is “not a complicated site,” meaning that it is clearly distinguishable as to what the subject matter is, and that within that site, there is a cultural or historical resource that should be preserved for future generations. Here at James A. Garfield NHS, it is clearly distinguishable that this site is that which was the home of the 20th President of the United States, and that the artifacts found here, coupled with the Front Porch Campaign of 1880, makes it perfectly clear that the NHS designation is the right fit for us.

The James and Lucretia Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site.  (NPS image)

The James and Lucretia Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (NPS image)

On December 28, 1980, by an act of Congress, Public Law 96-607, Title XII, Section 1201, this site was designated as a National Historic Site “…to preserve for the benefit, education, and inspiration of present and future generations certain properties associated with the life of James A. Garfield…” This meant that the National Park Service could become a part of the team that would preserve the artifacts here, as well as tell the story of President James A. Garfield.

James A. Garfield National Historic Site is one of four NPS Sites in Ohio with the National Historic Site (or NHS) designation. The others are Fallen Timbers and Fort Miamis (www.nps.gov/fati); First Ladies (www.nps.gov/fila); and William Howard Taft (www.nps.gov/wiho).  Only one site in Ohio, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers, has the National Monument designation.  A National Monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument is one of the newest National Parks in the entire system.  It commemorates the life of Colonel Charles Young, an African American West Point graduate, Army officer, diplomat, and civil rights leader.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument is one of the newest National Parks in the entire system. It commemorates the life of Colonel Charles Young, an African American West Point graduate, Army officer, diplomat, and civil rights leader.  (Library of Congress)

So, what then, is a National Park? National Parks, in the traditional sense, are lands which are set aside for the “preservation of nationally and globally significant scenic areas and nature preserves.” When we look at Yellowstone (www.nps.gov/yell), Grand Canyon (www.nps.gov/grca), or even closer to home, Cuyahoga Valley (www.nps.gov/cuva), it is apparent that these locales are home to exactly what they seek to preserve. At Cuyahoga Valley, for example, there are primeval forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other natural wonders that are significant to the area, as well as to the nation and world. Additionally, to find natural treasures sandwiched between two metropolitan areas like this is even more special.

Cuyahoga Valley was originally designated as a National Recreation Area (a separate designation) in 1974, and received its National Park designation in 2001. It is Ohio’s only “traditional” National Park.

Brandywine Falls, located in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  (NPS image)

Brandywine Falls, located in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. (NPS image)

In the Buckeye State, we have two NPS Site which have the designation of National Historical Park (NHP). These sites deal with broader topics, such as Dayton Aviation Heritage (www.nps.gov/daav), which have multiple venues, such as the Wright Bicycle Shop and the Huffman Prairie, as well as the Paul Laurence Dunbar house, but also hit on multiple points of historical significance. The other NHP in Ohio is Hopewell Culture (www.nps.gov/hocu), which discusses the broad topics concerning some of Ohio’s native peoples.

This brings us to the four remaining NPS sites in Ohio.

Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial (www.nps.gov/pevi) is a National Park located on South Bass Island in the Village of Put-in-Bay. It is a Memorial, which means it commemorates an important event or person, but does it in a two-fold manner. It first commemorates the decisive naval victory in 1813 of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie, where he defeated the British Navy. Secondly, it honors the lasting peace among the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is the only International Peace Memorial in the National Park System, and is the only U.S. National Park to fly the flags of three nations side-by-side.

Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, flying the flags of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  (NPS image)

Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, flying the flags of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. (NPS image)

David Berger National Memorial (www.nps.gov/dabe) in Beachwood is a National Park site which pays tribute to David Berger, an athlete and native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who was killed in the attacks at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. A National Memorial is a place of national importance which honors the sacrifice of an individual or individuals thought to be significant in our nation’s history. David Berger, although an American by birth, had Israeli citizenship, and was a member of the 1972 Israeli National Wrestling Team.

Finally, the last two NPS Sites in Ohio are part of the National Trails System. The National Aviation Heritage Area (www.nps.gov/avia) links sites that were part of the early days of aviation in and around the greater Dayton area. The North Country National Scenic Trail (www.nps.gov/noco) is a nine-state trail that takes travelers to some of the most scenic areas in the nation.

12 National Parks. 7 designations. 1 state. These are your National Parks in Ohio.

-Andrew Mizsak, Site Volunteer

“The Most Important Political Change We Have Known”: James A. Garfield, Slavery, and Justice in the Civil War Era, Part II

CONGRESSIONAL CAREER

In Congress, James Garfield was confronted by the war and the reconstruction of the South that followed. His goals for the freedmen were very much in sync with the Radical Republican program, especially the passage of the constitutional amendments designed to elevate the status of blacks in American society and under law. He supported the extension of the Freedman’s Bureau, the Civil Rights acts passed in the late 1860s, and with initial misgivings, the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In time, he became disillusioned with radicalism, writing to his friend Burke Hinsdale, “I am trying to do two things, viz. be a radical and not a fool – which… is a matter of no small difficulty.”

Even before the Civil War ended, Garfield could be counted among those who favored the confiscation of rebel property in order to secure a Northern victory. He believed that the South had to be “beaten to its knees,” that both slavery and landed estates had to be abolished. “It is well known that the power of slavery rests in the large plantations… and that the bulk of all the real estate is in the hands of the slave-owners who have plotted this great conspiracy… let these men go back to their lands and they will again control the South…” If the slave-holders continued to have power, they would use that power to the detriment of the freed people, and that would call into question all the blood and treasure that had been expended during the war.

Yet, for all his desire to see slavery ended, he did not want to see African-Americans given “special treatment.” Garfield could not agree with Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to equalize the pay of white and black soldiers. Apparently he thought Stevens’ proposal was a ploy to win political points at home. Though he praised black troops for their devotion and service to the Union, Garfield would not “pat the black man on the back merely because he is black,” and he would not attempt to make “political capital by showing an excessive zeal for the black man.”

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers.  (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers. (Library of Congress)

Congressman Garfield would not “condescend” to African-Americans. Yet as a much younger man, having attended a lecture on slavery, he observed, “The Darkey had some funny remarks, and witty too.”  Was this a condescending, consciously racist remark? Or was he paying “the Darkey” a genuine compliment?

Racial prejudice certainly seems to have been a factor in Garfield’s attitude, when in July 1865, he wrote to his friend David Swaim, “It goes against the grain of my feelings to favor Negro suffrage, for I never could fall in love with the creatures…” It was a private comment – condescending perhaps – that by today’s standards seems to be an ugly remark. Still, whether or not to grant freedmen the suffrage – the right to vote, and under what circumstances – was an enduring and controversial issue during Reconstruction.

If Garfield’s discomfort with the idea of unrestricted black suffrage was based in the race prejudice of his day, it seems likely that his own experience influenced his thoughts just as much. His background was one without advantages, but he acquired education and had abiding interests in history, religion, philosophy, literature, science and the theatre. He grew knowledgeable about the world around him, and felt informed about how it worked and what its needs were. In his eyes, he was fit to exercise his voice and vote in public affairs. Not so every recently freed slave.

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president.  Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president. Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Whatever may have been his private reservations, James Garfield was consistent in his public support for African-American suffrage. He condemned the idea that race should determine the right to vote. “Let us not commit ourselves to the senseless and absurd dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage…” he said in a speech at Ravenna, Ohio on July 4, 1865.

In the same speech Garfield spoke of the common cause of the black and white soldier: “In the extremity of our distress,” he said, “we called upon the black man to help us save the Republic; and amid the very thunders of battle, we made a covenant with him, sealed both with his blood and with ours… that, when the nation was redeemed, he should be free, and share with us its glories and its blessings”.  And he warned, “[God]… will appear in judgment against us if we do not fulfill that covenant. Have we done it? Have we given freedom to the black man? What is freedom? …Is it the bare privilege of not being chained – of not being bought and sold, branded and scourged? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery…” In expressing these thoughts, Garfield was referring to the mistreatment of blacks in the South, and the racial prejudice they experienced even with emancipation.

Garfield’s support for black suffrage was tied to goals that combined a sincere concern for the welfare of African-Americans with his nationalist point of view incorporating the economic unity of the country and a desire to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party in the South. Without black suffrage, these goals could not be achieved. Like many Republicans, Garfield saw voting was an economic right, as much as a political one. Without the vote, Garfield feared that the freed Negroes would be unable to control their own destinies. They would be left “to the tender mercies of those pardoned rebels who have been so reluctantly compelled to take their feet from his neck and their hands from his throat.” If blacks could not vote, they would “have no voice in determining the conditions under which they are to live and labor…” Under these circumstances, “what hope have they of the future?”

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans.  (icivics.org)

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. (icivics.org)

The mix of idealism and political pragmatism embodied in this idea took concrete form in the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments abolished slavery, conferred citizenship to the freed people, and guaranteed a right to vote for adult Negro males. Subsequent legislation passed in the early 1870s was designed to reinforce those amendments.

During the debate over passage of the 14th Amendment, the necessity of abolishing the three-fifths clause in the Constitution was obvious. While slavery was constitutional, that clause had worked to the advantage of the Southerners in Congress. It counted as three-fifths of a person every enslaved individual, artificially inflating Southern influence in the House of Representatives. By abolishing the three-fifths clause, the influence of the landed whites who had brought on the rebellion was reduced. By conferring citizenship on blacks, their influence was increased. Of the necessity of removing the three-fifths clause, Garfield said, “If the Negro be denied the franchise and the size of the House of Representatives remain as now we shall have fifteen additional members of Congress from the states lately in rebellion… This… will place … the destiny of 412,000 black men in the hands of 20,000 white men. Such an unjust and unequal distribution of power would breed perpetual mischief…”

Throughout the 1870s white Southern racists constantly attacked African-Americans and their Radical supporters, politically, physically, and psychologically. Violence in Louisiana and Mississippi in the mid-1870s was particularly galling, but these events only seemed to encourage Northerners to withdraw from the racial and political problems of the South. Supreme Court decisions nullified civil rights protections and permitted restrictions on the right to vote. James Garfield’s response was to plead for additional civil rights legislation. “God taught us early that in this fight the fate of our own race was indissolubly linked with that of the black man. Justice to them has always been safety to us.” To a friend he wrote in January 1875: “I have for some time had the impression that there is a general apathy among the people concerning the war and the Negro. The public seems to have tired of the subject and all appeals to do justice to the Negro…”

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of  racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship.  (www.learnnc.com)

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship. (www.learnnc.com)

The battle over civil rights protections for blacks was a subtext for political control between Democrats and Republicans. In a highly partisan speech, “The Democratic Party and Government,” Garfield lamented, “that a people, accustomed to [the] domination of slavery, reenacted in almost all of the Southern states… laws limiting and restricting the liberty of the colored man – vagrant laws and peonage laws, whereby Negroes were sold at auction for payment of a paltry tax or fine, and held in a slavery as real as the slavery of other days.” Garfield thought that the “experiment” of allowing Southern whites to have control over the political culture was “a failure.” He condemned “those dreadful scenes enacted by the Ku Klux organization,” calling them “shocking barbarities,” and “sufficient proof …of that great conspiracy against the freedom of the colored race.”  He was witnessing the beginning of what historian Douglas Blackmon has chronicled in his book, Slavery by Another Name – the “re-enslavement” of African-Americans by means of forced labor for “crimes” committed. Indeed, as Garfield feared, the freedom won by war was lost in peace.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

“The Most Important Political Change We Have Known”: James A. Garfield, Slavery, and Justice in the Civil War Era, Part I

In the last year-and-a-half, a new book, Destiny of the Republic, has been published regarding the incident for which this late nineteenth century president is remembered by most Americans, if he is remembered at all: his assassination. But there is much more to James A. Garfield than the manner of his death. Born into poverty with no material advantages, he harnessed his broad intellect and natural curiosity to become a well-educated and cultured individual. He was a preacher, a teacher, a college president, an Ohio state senator, a Civil War general, a member of the United States House of Representatives for seventeen years, and the twentieth President of the United States.

Though he never called himself an "abolitionist," Garfield felt strongly enough about the evils of slavery and the preservation of the Union to volunteer for the Union army in mid-1861.  This image shows him as a Brigadier General.  (Original photo by Mathew Brady)

Though he never called himself an “abolitionist,” Garfield felt strongly enough about the evils of slavery and the preservation of the Union to volunteer for the Union army in mid-1861. This image shows him as a Brigadier General; he was a Major General when he left the army to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of 1863.  (Original photo by Mathew Brady)

The majority of James A. Garfield’s political career was spent in the House of Representatives. Over the course of seventeen years, from 1863-1880, he grew in influence and responsibility. Congressman Garfield had decided views on the economic issues of his day, was a proponent of scientific investigation, and supported a national bureau of education. He also supported the civil and political rights of African-Americans even as those rights were being curtailed in the South. Still, though his public statements about blacks have the ring of a genuine humanitarian concern, it is also true that he had political objectives that coincided with the sincere support for the civil and political rights of blacks that he expressed right into his presidency. At the same time, it is also clear that he shared attitudes about race that were common in his day.

James Garfield’s earliest comments regarding African-Americans, and specifically slavery, appear in his diaries of the 1850s when he was a young man in his twenties. It is important to note that at this time his views on slavery and politics were thoroughly influenced by his religious affiliation, the Disciples of Christ. Many Disciples contended that no one who was concerned with politics could be a Christian, a conviction Garfield adopted when he became a member of the sect at age nineteen in 1850. On numerous occasions he spoke of his disdain for politics as contrary to being a Christian. For example, he wrote on Thursday, September 5, 1850, “I have engaged to support the following proposition, viz., Christians have no right to participate in human governments!” And after hearing a sermon about slavery in October that year, he read essays on the relationship of slavery to Christian thought. He concluded that, “the simple relation of master and slave is not unchristian.”

Also in October 1850, James Garfield heard Congressman Joshua R. Giddings denounce the recently adopted Fugitive Slave Law at a public gathering in his Ohio district. Giddings’ abolitionist views were well known in the Western Reserve, but again, reflecting his discomfort with politics at this time in his life, Garfield “could not help but consider that the cause for which he was laboring was a carnal one.”  In other words, slavery was a concern of this world and therefore not a concern of a true Christian.

Ohio Representative Joshua R. Giddings was a vocal abolitionist.  He once resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives when that body censured him for supporting the freedom of slaves who had rebelled aboard the slave ship Creole.  His constitutents promptly voted him back into office.  (Ohio Historical Society)

Ohio Representative Joshua R. Giddings was a vocal abolitionist. He once resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives when that body censured him for supporting the freedom of slaves who had rebelled aboard the slave ship “Creole.”  His constitutents promptly voted him back into office. (Ohio Historical Society)

Within a few short years, James Garfield’s views on politics and slavery had changed. Study, experience and intellectual maturity “gradually and somewhat painfully shook [him] loose from some of his smugly-held beliefs.”  In 1855, while he was a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, Garfield heard two abolitionist lecturers whose attacks on slavery completely altered his views: “I have been instructed tonight on the political condition of our country, and from this time forward I shall hope to know more about its movements and interests.”

He was now convinced that slavery must not be allowed to spread into the new territories acquired after the Mexican War. In his youthful enthusiasm he confided to his diary that, “At such hours as this, I feel like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil. I don’t know but the religion of Christ demands such action.”  He also wrote, “I am sometimes led to think that our people are not yet fit for Liberty, nor worthy of it, but ‘Let come what may come.’ Slavery has had its day, or at any rate is fast having it.”  What a reversal in his view of politics and Christianity.

CIVIL WAR YEARS

During the Civil War, Garfield’s military service convinced him that the institution of slavery was politically and morally bankrupt. Particularly disturbing to him was the bigotry in the Union army that he witnessed first-hand. Writing from Pittsburg, Tennessee to his friend J. Harry Rhodes, in May 1862, he expressed his disgust with army politics and the “conspiracy among the leading officers, especially those of the regular army to taboo the whole question of anti-slavery and throw as much discredit upon it as upon treason. The purpose is seen clearly both in their words and actions.  I find myself coming nearer and nearer to downright abolitionism.”

The passage of the first Confiscation Act by Congress in 1861 permitted the Union Army to take fleeing slaves under its protection. However, many Union generals, particularly those who were Democrats, refused to honor this provision, which angered James Garfield. In 1862, he pointedly rebuked what he termed “the haughty tyranny of proslavery officers.” He wrote, “Not long ago my commanding general sent me an order to have my camp searched for a fugitive slave. I sent back word that if generals wished to disobey an express law of Congress, which is also an order from the War Department, they must do it themselves for no soldier or officer under my command should take part in such disobedience…”

The First Confiscation Act (1861) permitted Union troops to seize any property-including slaves-that were being used to support the Confederacy.  This 1862 image shows escaped slaves working for wages for the Union army near Yorktown, Virginia.  (Library of Congress)

The First Confiscation Act (1861) permitted Union troops to seize any property-including slaves-that were being used to support the Confederacy. This 1862 image shows escaped slaves working for wages for the Union army near Yorktown, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Garfield’s humanity in regard to a slave he encountered in the field is eloquently recalled in The Garfield Orbit, by Margaret Leech and Harry Brown. Shortly after the battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky, in early 1862, “a Negro boy was brought to Colonel Garfield – an odd figure, dressed in Confederate uniform and fully armed and equipped. The servant of a Virginia colonel, Jim Rollins had slipped away near the close of the fight and come to the Union commander to give himself up. Garfield was touched by his trust. His thinking was changing… He was coming to believe that the war to save the Union would inevitably carry nationwide emancipation in its train. It added personal warmth to Garfield’s intellectual conclusion that he stood to this Negro boy as the representative of protection and freedom.”

Though Garfield was troubled by how Union officers treated African-Americans, he was equally aware of the dilemma of what to do with Negro camp followers, especially women and children. The men could be employed as Teamsters or drilled to become soldiers. But with the surrounding country being, in Garfield’s words, “devastated and destitute,” he was “totally unable to see how its people and especially the Negroes will escape actual starvation. Thousands have been abandoned by their masters, who… now cruelly turn them out to perish or become a burden which this army cannot safely assume. We should be obliged to duplicate our rations in less than two months if we took them up to feed and protect. It is one of the saddest pictures I ever witnessed… I wish the government would try some plan of alleviation.”

It is clear that James Garfield responded with compassion to the plight of the enslaved people. The political angling that surrounded them, the circumstances that called into question their survival and his inability to render them aid frustrated him.

In uniform and in Congress, Garfield supported enlisting blacks to the Union Army. He did not give great weight to the fear that such enlistees could lead to slave insurrections. Such a result might indeed lead to bloodshed, “but it is not in my heart to lay a feather’s weight in the way of our Black Americans if they choose to strike…” If the slaves rebelled, that would be all the better in undermining the Confederacy.

As a Union officer, James A. Garfield supported the enlistment of black soldiers such as these from Company E, 4th United States Colored Troops.  Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation permitted blacks to join the Union army and navy, and nearly 200,000 eventually served.  (Dickinson College, www.housedivided.dickinson.edu)

As a Union officer, James A. Garfield supported the enlistment of black soldiers such as these from Company E, 4th United States Colored Troops. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation permitted blacks to join the Union army and navy, and nearly 200,000 eventually served. (Dickinson College, http://www.housedivided.dickinson.edu)

In October 1863, Congressman-elect Garfield accompanied Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to a rally in Baltimore, which called for the unconditional abolition of slavery in Maryland. In a letter to his wife Lucretia, he described finding “15,000 to 20,000 people assembled on Monument Square and the speakers – many of them lifelong slaveholders – made the square bold issue” for ending the peculiar institution in the Old Line state.”He continued, “I was never more delighted and astonished, and when I spoke to them the same words I would address to our people …and hearing their long applause, I felt as if the political millennium had come.”

(check back later in February 2013 for Part II of this post)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger