Presidential Material: Civil War Candidates From McClellan to McKinley

Editor’s Note: This article is a guest post by Greg Quinion.  Greg has submitted several other articles for TOCWOC in the past, including a series on General Phil Kearny.  Greg’s piece on this Election Day focuses appropriately enough on Civil War soldiers who went on to become presidential candidates, and for more than a few, Presidents of the United States.

Presidential Material:  Civil War Candidates From McClellan to McKinley


When considering the presidents of the United States of America who passed through the crucible of its terrible Civil War, two men come to mind whose political legacies are unmistakably linked to its struggle.  Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant will never be disassociated from their leadership during America’s darkest hour.  Yet 7 other American presidents would see military service during the war.  Of those, 4 would see extensive combat.  With almost 20% of our nations Presidents having served during our civil war, we can gain some appreciation for just how defining this conflict was to the growth and maturation of the nation.  In its aftermath, as the torn country began to heal, it fell to men who served the Union in battle to try and lead the nation in peace.

While the 19th Century can be considered the birth of the modern age of industry, technology, and new social ideas, it was also the final century of a different age where it was not only common for military leaders to lead from the front, but expected that they do so.  As the bullets did not discriminate between the lowest Private and the loftiest Major General, combat leadership in America’s deadliest war was not something to be taken lightly when embarking on a presidential campaign.  Even sitting presidents were not exempt.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis recklessly exposed himself to enemy fire at Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, and a number of battles throughout the war.  When Abraham Lincoln stood on the parapets of Washington DC’s Fort Stevens during a rebel attack in July of 1864, he came under fire that felled the man next to him.

The first Federal officer to capitalize on his military fame and seek the presidency did so before the war even ended.  Major General George B. McClellan challenged and was defeated by his commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1864.  Looking past Lincoln, the successive 8 Presidents had all seen civil war military service with the notable exception of Grover Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms despite ridicule that he had circumvented military service and the Conscription Act by paying a Polish immigrant $150 dollars to serve as his substitute.  Even ex-presidents did their part.  Millard Fillmore, the 13th President, led an upstate New York home guard milita, while former Vice-President John C. Breckinridge (himself defeated by Lincoln in the election of 1860) led Confederate forces into combat at Shiloh, Baton Rouge, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, New Market, Cold Harbor, Monocacy, and Fort Stevens, where for the only time in American history two former presidential election opponents confronted each other across a battlefield.

Upon Lincoln’s assassination, Vice-President Andrew Johnson took on the Presidency as well as the burden of the nation’s reconstruction.  Johnson had held the rank of Brigadier General, and though he never saw combat he had served as the military governor of the Union occupied parts of his home state of Tennessee.  He proved instrumental in defending Nashville from Confederate raiders, and advocating for the liberation of Unionist Eastern Tennessee.  As a southern Democrat, his term was one of constant conflict with radical Republicans, who viewed his policies as too lenient towards the defeated Confederate states.  He would even suffer impeachment by the House of Representatives.  His successor in office was none other than Ulysses S. Grant, whose service during the war is well known, but whose two terms in office are known more today for the widespread corruption of his associates, the economic “Panic” of 1873, and the failures of reconstruction.

The 19th President was Rutherford B. Hayes, who started the war as a Major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that historian Stephen W. Sears noted was “uniquely rich in presidential timber” as it included a young Private on its roster named William McKinley.  While serving under Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans in West Virginia, Hayes first taste of battle came during a sharp fight at Carnifex Ferry in September of 1861.  One year later, and now a Lt. Colonel, Hayes lead a successful uphill bayonet charge at the Battle of South Mountain during the Confederate invasion of Maryland.  During the charge Hayes took a serious wound.  As William McKinley later remembered, a bullet “shattered his left arm above the elbow, crushing the bone to fragments…”  As his men swept past him, he lay on the field and urged them to “Give the sons of bitches hell!”  He would miss the Battle of Antietam and not see significant combat again until 1864, when he returned as a Brigadier General and led a brigade at the battles of Cloyd’s Mountain, Lynchburg, and Second Kernstown, where he was wounded in the shoulder and had his horse shot from beneath him.  In Sheridan’s victorious Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 Hayes fought at Berryville, the Third Battle of Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek.

Back in Ohio there were those who saw Hayes as political material, and during his final campaign, he was surprised to receive the Republican nomination from his congressional district to the House of Representatives.  Refusing to campaign for the position, Hayes remarked to his supporters: “an officer fit for duty who in this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.”  Notwithstanding, he was sworn into Congress in 1865.  By 1868 Hayes was Governor of Ohio, and in 1876 he narrowly defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden in arguably the most controversial election in American history.  Despite losing the popular vote and possibly not having enough legitimate electoral votes, Democrats conceded the Presidency after a long period of dispute in exchange for an end to Federal Military Occupation of the South, a “corrupt bargain” which consequently meant an end to both Republican rule in the south and military protection of the rights of black southerners.

Rutherford B. Hayes had promised America that he desired but one term in office, and was as good as his word.  Like Hayes, America’s 20th President was an Ohio man and a combat veteran.  Brig. Gen. James Garfield had begun military service as Lt. Colonel of the 42nd Ohio.  He helped clear eastern Kentucky of Confederates in early 1862, commanded a brigade under Don Carlos Buell at the battle of Shiloh, and served in Henry Halleck’s ponderous advance on Corinth, Mississippi.  In 1863 he became Chief of Staff for Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee.  With Garfield’s help, Rosecrans planned and executed the brilliant Tullahoma Campaign, which drove Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee from the state and ultimately resulted in the capture of the important rail hub of Chattanooga.  Abraham Lincoln called the Tullahoma Campaign “the most splendid piece of strategy I know of”.

When Bragg’s counterattack broke the Army of the Cumberland in two at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20th, 1863, Rosecrans and Garfield found themselves amidst the routed troops debating whether to retreat to Chattangooga or to try to rally and hold what remained of the Union line.  According to witnesses, Garfield convinced the exhausted Rosecrans to ride back to Chattanooga and prepare the army’s defenses, while he himself rode back towards the fight to check the status of General George H. Thomas, whose men seemed to be fighting on unbroken.  While most accounts relate how exhausted and ill informed of the situation Rosecrans was at the time, a commanding general belongs on the battlefield, and it should have been Garfield who rode back to Chattanooga.  As hindsight relates, George Thomas could and did hold the rebels back, and as Rosecrans rode away, and to the end of his career, James Garfield rode towards the fight, fame, and eventually the presidency.  In the election of 1880 he would lose the popular vote by a slim 2000 votes, but ascend to the presidency with an electoral majority.  His democratic opponent was none other than Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock.

When an assassin’s bullet ended Garfield’s Presidency and his life a mere 200 days into his term on September 19th 1881, Vice-President Chester A. Arthur became the 21st President of the United States.  Like Garfield, Arthur had held the rank of Brigadier General during the war, though he proved so proficient as Quartermaster General of New York that he spent much of the war raising, outfitting and inspecting New York soldiers on their way to the front.  He would be succeeded in the White House by Grover Cleveland, who despite notoriety as America’s first draft-dodging president, defeated James G. Blaine in 1884.  Blaine’s Republican running mate was former Major General John A. Logan who had served as commander of XV Corps under Grant and Sherman.  A third party candidate that year was Benjamin F. Butler, another ex-Major General.

In 1888 America elected Benjamin Harrison to the Presidency.  Like Hayes and Garfield before him, he was an Ohio man, and grandson to America’s ninth President, William Henry Harrison.  Like his grandfather he would gain fame as a general before entering politics.  Benjamin Harrison rose from command of the 70th Indiana Regiment to command of a brigade in the Army of the Cumberland.  He led his brigade through Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, fighting at Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Kennesaw Mountain, Marietta, Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta.  His men remembered him as a stern officer, but not altogether cold.  One remembered how he personally delivered coffee to men on picket duty one freezing December night before the Battle of Nashville.  Another recalled his battlefield manner as “the personification of fiery valor.”  Joseph Hooker, his corps commander, regarded Harrison as “an officer of superior abilities of great professional and personal worth.”  Like so many of his colleagues, Harrison entered politics as a Republican.  He spent 6 years in the Senate before defeating the incumbent Grover Cleveland, becoming President in 1889.  Seeking a second term, he was defeated by Cleveland in a rematch election in 1892

When Grover Cleveland left the White House for the second and final time, it was yet another Ohio man who replaced him.  William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election, running on a Republican ticket.  McKinley was the last president to see service in the Civil War, and the only one to have risen from the ranks.  In 1861 McKinley enlisted in the 23rd Ohio, and like his superior officer, Major Rutherford B. Hayes, his baptism of fire came at Carnifex Ferry on September 10th 1861.  Hayes became a mentor to the young McKinley, who would remain close to him for the remainder of his life.  He fought at South Mountain, Antietam, Cloyd’s Mountain, Lynchburg, Kernstown, Berryville, Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek.  He would finish the war a Major.

McKinley’s finest hour came at Antietam, in a display of gallantry that reveals much of his personality.  By the time the 23rd Ohio joined the attack late in the battle, they been standing ready since the early hours of morning.  No food had come up to them that day, yet they moved into the assault with spirit.  When A.P. Hill’s counterattack threw them back in disarray some time later, the exhausted Ohians found themselves back near “Burnside’s” bridge, exhausted, bloody, and starving.  Seeing the dejected men streaming back, Sgt. McKinley grabbed two wagons and headed to the rear to find food.  Over the next hours he braved enemy fire repeatedly in an effort to bring food and coffee directly to the front line for his tired comrades.  Cheers for the young sergeant soared high above the sound of the battle.  His bravery in performing this otherwise simple gesture earned him a promotion to Second Lieutenant.

In Antietam’s aftermath, President Lincoln came to visit the battlefield, and reviewed McKinley’s division with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.  It was remembered that the president rode hastily, and gazing straight ahead and barely registering the faces of the soldiers. However, when he reached the 23rd Ohio, he stopped, and was shown the tattered remnants of their battle flag.  General Burnside had pointed out the 23rd and whispered of their recent loses.  The future president recalled how “the sadness of President Lincoln’s face on that occasion made more impression upon him as a boy than all the carnage of that dreadful day.”  Throughout his life he would recall how Lincoln’s “indescribably sad, thoughtful, far-seeing expression pierced every man’s soul.”

Many years later, during his own presidency, a new generation clamored for a new war with Spain, and William McKinley worried himself to exhaustion in his efforts to find a peaceful resolution.  Haunted by his memories of the last slaughter, he remarked: “I have been through one war; I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another.”  And yet, when he was murdered by an anarchist’s bullet in 1901, the presidency would go to a young veteran of the McKinley administration’s Spanish-American War: Theodore Roosevelt.

Whether condemned to obscurity or well known for their other achievements and failings, the nations Civil War presidents’ most enduring collective legacy is the leniency and understanding they showed towards their defeated southern brethren, a behavior often at odds with the radical politicians of the day, who sought punishment for the south’s “treason”.  These veterans, despite their other motives, vanities, policies and beliefs, knew the nation needed healing, unity, and forgiveness if it was to preserve the peace, and retain the fruits of a victory forged in the terrible crucible of a civil war.


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