President Garfield and General Thomas
A. Garfield was elected President in 1880 and took office in
1881. Had he not been assassinated that year by a
deranged job seeker, he would have served until 1885 and
quite possibly until 1889. General
Grant died in 1885 and while his influence was certainly waning by that time
due to his uneven presidency and his financial scandals, the death-bed publication of his
famous and well-written memoirs artificially draped his version of Civil War history with
the 'cloak of truth'. It would be treated as gospel by
most historians from that time on.
In his memoirs, Grant was very often complimentary to officers when he knew their accomplishments could never threaten his reputation as the 'outstanding general of the war' such as Sherman and Sheridan. But, perhaps due to some quirk in his personality, he was often unfair to officers whom he knew could be favorable compared to him in ability such as Thomas and Meade.
Afterwards, only a person with the prestige of the Presidency could correct Grant's intentionally false characterization of Thomas as a slow, plodding soldier with only defensive fighting qualities and no offensive capabilities whatsoever.
also be remembered that
several Grant cronies (Sherman, Sheridan and Schofield) led the army for 30
years after the Civil War. All of
them demeaned Thomas (by then long dead) in their memoirs trying to make
their record and Grant's appear better at Thomas' expense. Anyone in the
army during those years who would refute this 'official' version of
history would risk the loss of their career. Years
after the war, General Sherman even tried to court-martial an officer for merely
writing a history article critical to one of his friends.
General Garfield, as Rosecrans' chief of staff, rode under fire to Thomas during the stand at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, and that act may have helped make him president as it was predominately mentioned in his campaign literature.
greatly respected and admired General Thomas. After
Thomas' untimely death, Garfield made a moving speech at a reunion of
the Army of the Cumberland in November, 1870 in Cleveland entitled "The
Life and Character of George H. Thomas".
is conceivable that, had he lived, President Garfield
who was no particular friend of Grant would
have set the record straight on the accomplishments of General Thomas
to the general public, and
Thomas’ rightful place in history as one of the very best
Union generals (perhaps second only to Grant) would
have been secured.
As it was, with the passing of his army veterans, Thomas’ place in history was lost.
President Garfield's assassination depicted in engraving from 1881 newspaper.
1. Society of the Army of the Cumberland, Fourth Reunion, Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1870, p. 55 -104
2. Hinsdale, B. A.: The Works of James Abram Garfield, Vol. I, Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1882, p. 643-673