Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Touched by Fire" by James M. Perry

Wars have always given birth to future Presidents of the United States. Our first President was a General. The War of 1812 gave us two more military Presidents, as did the War with Mexico in the 1840's. The Civil War gave us five Presidents who had been "touched by fire." The Spanish-American War gave us one. The First World War gave us at least 2, and the Second World War gave us a string Presidents from Eisenhower through Ford. Almost half of our Presidents have been products of the military. But the Civil War gave us the most number of Presidents who had actually seen combat, in essence, "touched by fire." Their experiences in the war would color their leadership, as well as help to chart the future course of our nation.

Beginning in 1869, at age 46 years old, General Grant would become the youngest President elected up to that time. That record would not be broken until Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President-elect at age 42, and that would not be surpassed until John Kennedy's election, at age 43, in 1960. (The discrepancy in who was actually elected at a younger age, versus being inaguarated, comes from the change in the date of inaguaration, which changed from March to January, in 1933 with the swearing in of Franklin Roosevelt.)

Grant was a natural choice for the office after Lincoln's Vice President had finished the slain President's term in 1868. Grant was, after all, the hero of the Civil War. He did, however, make a lousy President, and his administration was marked by scandal after scandal as he was manipulated by the Barons of the Gilded Age. Only Mark Twain, by assisting Grant in the writing of his memoirs, would save Grant from poverty. He died shortly after completing the book.

Grant was a product, like his nemesis General Lee, of West Point. He had failed at everything prior to that endeavor, and even in that he graduated at the bottom of his class. After the Mexican War he left the Army and tried his hand at everything imagineable, failing at them all. The outbreak of the Civil War brought him back into the Army, and with his daring tactics and agresssive leadership, he was able to prosecute the war to a speedy conclusion.

Grant was followed into office by Rutherford Hayes, who had served in the Civil War as a Major in the 23rd Ohio Regiment. These men were all volunteers, including an 18 year old Private named William McKinley. That he would actually form a bond with the future, and much older, Major Hayes, would seem unlikely, but is nonetheless true.

Major Hayes won the hearts of his men the day that the 23rd received their weapons. Due to the actions of President Buchanan's last Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, a Southerner, most of the modern weapons had been shipped South in the days leading up to the outbreak of the war, leaving the North short on modern rifles. The boys of the 23rd refused, at first, to accept the old weapons and were actually threatened with being shot for doing so. That order came from Lieutenant Colonel Matthews. Major Hayes took a different tact, going from tent to tent, lecturing the boys in a kindly way and reminding them of the lack of weaponry at the outbreak of the American Revolution, inspiring them to return to the arsenal and take up their arms. The 23rd would go on to extinguish itself in the West Virginia campaign.

The next, and third, President to spring from the Civil War was James Garfield. He was an inspired leader of men, and would go on to fight in the the Big Sandy campaign, which though crucial to the sucess of the war, gets surprisingly little note in the history books. The Big Sandy was critical due to the fact that the valley, and the river named for it, ran along the line between West Virginia, which was Union, and Kentucky, which was not officially a Confederate state, but so conflicted in it's loyalties, that it was essential that the Union maintain hold of it. And with the help of future President Garfield, it remained a part of the Union. Garfield's exploits in the Big Sandy made his future career. That he was only President for six months, dying at the hands of an assassin during his first year in office, in no way diminishes this accomplishment.

After Garfield there was a period of 8 years before another Civil War veteran was elected to the Presidency. This was Benjamin Harrison, who was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who had also been a General in the Mexican War before he became President. That Benjamin Harrison would follow so closely in the career path of his grandfather was surprising, as prior to the war he had no political ambitions at all. His contribution to the war came during the infamous March to the Sea under General Sherman. He lead the 70th Indiana into battle in Northwestern Georgia, as well as the neighboring states of Tennessee and Alabama.

After Harrison's reign in the White House there was another 8 year spell between a Civil War Veteran becoming President. William McKilnley, who had entered the war as an 18 year old Private, would be the last of the Civil War Presidents. Elected 38 years after the war had ended, he presided over the nation in the middle years of "Jim Crow" laws down South. Like Garfield, he too was shot by an assassin. Present at both assassinations was President Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln. It remains one of the most unusual facts of American history that he was present at the deaths of 3 American Presidents, including his father's.

This was a very insightful read, with much information about the battles in which each man made his mark. The battles fought, and sacrifices made, by these men, and the admiration of the men who served under them, paved the way for their eventual elections as President. And their experiences in that war would color their leadership in office, while shaping the nation in which we still live today.

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