Biography and Assassination of James A. Garfield, 20th U.S. President

James A. GarfieldBorn James Abram Garfield in 1831, President Garfield’s tenure as the 20th president of the United States was one of the briefest in the nation’s history. Prior to his presidency, the Ohio-born politician was elected nine times to the U.S. House of Representatives. And before that, he had a distinguished military career as a major general in the Union army during the American Civil War.

For many historians and scholars, James A. Garfield is not remembered for anything other than being assassinated while president. However, there is more to the life and story of President James A. Garfield than his short term in office and tragic death.

This biography profiles his early life, political career, and major achievements.

Early Life

James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 at a place near Orange Township, Ohio. He was the youngest of five children of Abraham Garfield and Eliza Ballou.

James Garfield spent his childhood years in a log cabin on a farm in Ohio. Tragedy did struck the Garfields in 1833 when his father died. James was only three years old at the time. James and his family did everything in their power to keep their heads above water.

In his teens, James briefly dropped out of school to work as a mull manager on a canal boat. After coming down with malaria, he left the job and headed back home to continue his education. James was a voracious reader, reading everything that he could lay his hand on.

Education and early teaching career

James enrolled at a seminary in Chester Township in 1848.  From there, he went to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (also known as Hiram College). He also attended Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1856. He excelled at languages and public speaking.

After graduating, Garfield proceeded to work as a classical language tutor at Hiram College. He even served as the president of the college.

Marriage and Children

During his early teaching days, Garfield met Lucretia Rudolph. The two got married in 1858 and went on to have seven children of which five survived beyond childhood.

Military and Political Achievements

Although he was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1861, Garfield opted to pursue a career in politics. Due to his stern opposition to slavery, Garfield joined the Republican Party in the late 1850s. In 1859, he won a local senate seat in the Ohio assembly. Hardly had he started serving as a legislature than the American Civil War broke out in 1861.

The following are some of the major accomplishments of James A. Garfield:

He had a remarkable military career during the American Civil War

Brigadier General James A. Garfield

A staunch opponent of the Confederate states seceding from the Union, James Garfield immediately signed up to the Union’s forces upon the breakout of the American Civil War. He started off by recruiting volunteers into the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. With virtually no military experience, James Garfield went on to serve as the colonel of his infantry.

He distinguished himself as a brave fighter in many Civil War battles, including the Battle of Middle Creek, Battle of Shiloh, and the Battle of Chickamauga.

During the war, he was appointed as the Chief of Staff in the Army of the Cumberland. From there, he was promoted to the rank of major general. This promotion came after his brave heroics at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.

Garfield served nine terms in Congress

While the American Civil War raged on, the 19th District of Ohio in 1862 elected Garfield to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. And once the war came to a conclusion, Garfield set off to Capitol Hill to begin what would be an illustrious career in Congress. He served a whopping nine times in Congress, serving from 1863 to 1880.

Garfield proved himself as a skilled public speaker. He also used his position to push for civil rights for African Americans during the Reconstruction Era (1864-1877). He also served as the chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations. He called on his colleagues to support protective tariffs and very strong Reconstruction policies in the South.

Became the 20th US President

In the beginning of the 1880 Republican National Convention, Garfield had no intention of seeking the presidential nomination. The three contenders at the convention were former president Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine from Maine, and John Sherman from Ohio.

Garfield went to the convention as the campaign manager for Ohio Senator John Sherman. However mid-way through the proceedings, Garfield emerged as the preferred compromise candidate on the 36th ballot.

Capitalizing on the relative successes of President Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican Party clinched a victory at the polls. Wining the electoral vote by 214 to 155, Garfield defeated Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, a major general in the Union army.

On March 4, 1881, James A. Garfield was sworn into office as the 20th President of the United States.

Assassination and Death

On July 2, 1881, a mentally unstable lawyer Charles J. Guiteau managed to get close to President Garfield and fired two shots at him. The scene of the assassination was at Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C.

The first bullet grazed the arm of Garfield. However, the second and more deadly bullet got lodged close to Garfield’s pancreas.

Ignorant of all hygiene practices and the harm of sepsis, the first attendants to the scene quickly tried to remove the bullet that was stuck in Garfield’s abdomen. They performed all of that with unwashed hands on the alive and conscious body of the President.

The head physician Willard Bliss, along with about 16 other doctors who volunteered to help the president, kept probing the President’s body without sterilizing their hands and medical instruments.

As Garfield writhe in pain on his death bed, he was visited by Alexander Graham Bell. The inventor of the telephone had come with a special metal detector device hoping to locate the bullet. All of that was to no avail, and President Garfield succumbed to his puss-filled wound and infections at 10:35 p.m. on September 19, 1818.

Aside from the infections that he suffered from the unsterilized fingers of his doctors, many believe that he died from either a heart attack or blood poisoning. He was succeeded by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

James A. Garfield was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio

So why did Guiteau shoot at President Garfield?

First and foremost Guiteau was an emotional disturbed man. Second, he was sour because the president broke away from the patronage system that rewarded government positions to cronies in the party.

A hard core Stalwart, Guiteau’s was also angered by the fact that he received no federal appointment in the Garfield administration. And even though he could speak no foreign language (including French), Guteau believed that he deserved the consul to Paris position simply because of his support of Garfield during the presidential election.

As punishment for his treasonous act, Guiteau was hanged in June 20, 1882.

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