President Garfield's assassination depicted in engraving
from 1881 newspaper
General James Abram Garfield
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.
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 and very many of his defeated
Confederate opponents. But, perhaps due to some quirk
in his character, he was often unfair to officers whom he knew could be
favorable compared to him in ability such as George H. Thomas and
William S. Rosecrans.
only a person with the prestige of the Presidency could correct Grant's
characterization of Thomas as a slow, plodding soldier with
only defensive fighting qualities and no offensive capabilities whatsoever.
Grant also used this rationale during the war to justify promoting General
Sherman over Thomas which eliminated a rival, but
probably caused unnecessary casualties as Sherman had even less skill in combat
than Grant and both were inferior to Thomas in planning and directing a major
also be noted 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. For years
after the war, General Sherman continually threatened officers with court-martial
if they wrote war articles critical to his views. Essentially he censored
all material written by the army.
Garfield, as Rosecrans' chief of staff, rode under fire to Thomas during the stand at the
Battle of Chickamauga in September 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 at Cleveland entitled "The
Life and Character of George H. Thomas".
is conceivable that, had he lived, President Garfield,
who was not particularly fond 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.
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