Person

James Abram Garfield: 1831-1881

black and white photo of a man wearing a dark suit
President James A. Garfield

Quick Facts

In the April 1884 issue of Century magazine, journalist E.V. Smalley offered this wistful portrait of James Garfield: 

“I fear coming generations … will see nothing … to remind
them that here was a man who loved to play croquet and romp     
with his boys upon his lawn at Mentor, [Ohio] who read Tennyson and Longfellow at fifty with as much enthusiastic pleasure as at twenty, who walked at evening with his arm around the neck of a friend in affectionate conversation, and whose sweet, sunny, loving nature not even twenty years of political strife could warp.”1

It is a fitting tribute to a man whose outward circumstances at birth did not suggest the warmth of heart or the intellect of brain for which James Abram Garfield would be remembered.
 

EARLY YEARS    

 
His antecedents were as simple, and plain, and colored with privation as those of Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln.  He was the fifth and final child of Abram Garfield and his wife, Eliza Ballou Garfield. Fate denied this youngest child any knowledge of his father, for Abram died prematurely at age 33, when James Garfield was eighteen months old.     

His mother Eliza now bore alone the responsibility of raising her young brood of two sons, Thomas, and James, and two daughters, Mehitabel, and Mary. [The other son, James Ballou, was born and died before James Abram joined the family circle.] With determination, wise management, and the help of friends and family on their Orange, Ohio farm, Eliza and her children coped with material poverty to form strong bonds of affection that never wavered.  

Early in life, it was obvious to all around him that little Jimmy was a very bright boy. In his teen years his mother encouraged her son to get an education. She thought he had the ability to go far if he applied himself to study. After a brief stint at “being a sailor” on the Ohio and Erie Canal, cut short by a bout of malaria, James Garfield acceded to his mother’s wishes. He attended first the Geauga Seminary, and then the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, now known as Hiram College.     

After finishing his studies at those two schools, he decided to explore the world beyond rustic Ohio. He was admitted as a junior to Williams College in Massachusetts in 1854. He graduated in 1856, second in his class. Returning to Ohio, he taught at the Eclectic Institute, and became the head of the school a year later.     

Mr. Garfield’s career soon took off. Already a preacher for the Disciples of Christ and a much-respected educator, this broadly curious man was also a skilled debater at a time when public debate was a rigorous form of public education and diversion. After a debate with a well-known atheist on the creation of the Earth, in 1859 he was nominated as a Republican for a seat in the Ohio Senate and elected.     

During his two years in the Ohio State Senate, Garfield was vocal in opposition to compromise with Southerners who were pointedly favoring secession. He also regularly spoke out against slavery.

 

MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LIFE

 

“If I could find the time and had the ability to write out the story of Crete’s life and mine, the long and anxious questionings that preceeded and attended the adjustment of our lives to each other, and the beautiful results we long ago reached and are now enjoying, it would be a more wonderful record than any I know in the realm of romance.”2  Diary of James A. Garfield, November 11, 1875

James A. Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph were married in her father’s home on November 11, 1858. The five-year courtship had been fraught with so many emotional ups and downs that, even though the couple had committed themselves to a union, Lucretia felt the necessity to send a wedding invitation to James.     

The early years of the marriage were difficult. Mr. Garfield was often away, first as a State Senator in Columbus, and then in the field of battle during the Civil War. A sense of uncertainty and loneliness troubled them both.    

Still, a daughter was born to them on July 3, 1860. Named Eliza Arabella after her grandmothers, the little girl, nick-named “Little Trot,” lived a short time. She died at three-and-a-half on December 3, 1863.    

An extra-marital affair with a writer for the New York Tribune, Lucia Calhoun, was revealed to Lucretia in 1864.  After being confronted, James Garfield admitted the affair.  

A confluence of events, Trot’s death, the revealed affair, and Garfield’s war-related bout with malaria – and Lucretia’s nursing of him – brought the couple to a realization of their feelings for each other. From that time on their marriage became one of ever-deepening, ever-growing devotion. In a letter to Lucretia dated November 24, 1867, began with the salutation, “Precious Darling,” and then wrote, “It is nearly ten o’clock Sunday night, and I will not lie down to sleep till I have told you again that I love you. … We no longer love because we ought to, but because we do. The tyranny of our love is sweet. We waited long for his coming, but he has come to stay.”3
 

In a similar vein, Mrs. Garfield wrote her husband on February 23, 1868, greeting him with, “My Dearest Life.” In the body of the letter she said, “My darling precious one, when I stop to think , and I do very often, how priceless is the gift of your great love …my soul lays hold of strong and holy purposes …When I look into the faces of our darling little ones, and take home to my heart the thought that they are ours, yours as well as mine, they seem to me so sacred …They all love you so much …” 4


There was indeed a strong bond of love between the parents, between the parents and their children, and between the children themselves, love that lasted during a long span of life.     

Six more children blessed the union of James and Lucretia. Harry, James, Mary (called Mollie), Irvin, and Abram lived to adulthood. The last child, Edward, did not.    

A wonderful recollection of the family’s life was presented by Mollie, then Mrs. Mary Garfield Stanley-Brown, in an 1892 article she wrote for The Youth’s Companion. She began her article in praise: “My father was not only our guide and counsellor; he was our comrade. He was interested in all we were thinking about and doing. He was the director of our work, the willing sharer of our play.”     

Recalling their life in Mentor, Mollie wrote, “As father believed there was no place like a farm for children, it was our good fortune to have a generous taste of country life. For six or seven months of each year we lived out-of-doors; were initiated by him into all the mysteries and delights of farm life, and laid away a goodly store of health, strength, and vigor.” 5

 

CIVIL WAR SERVICE    


When war erupted between the North and the South, Garfield resigned from the State Senate and volunteered for military service. He had no previous military experience, but he “wanted to get into the fight.” Appointed a Lieutenant Colonel by Ohio Governor WilliamDennison, he raised a regiment of infantry, the 42nd Ohio Volunteers, recruiting his men from the northeastern part of the state. He fought in the war for the next two years.     

James Garfield gained national attention in January 1862 with the Battle of Middle Creek, in the Sandy Valley of eastern Kentucky. The Lieutenant Colonel’s task was to drive the Confederates out of eastern Kentucky. Facing roughly 5,000 men under Confederate General Humphrey Marshall with about 2,200 troops, Garfield ultimately prevailed in the engagement that took place on January 9 and 10, 1862. The arrival of a reserve of 1,000 men proved critical to Garfield’s triumph over his more seasoned opponent. The Union victory was a rare bright spot in the early days of the war. Garfield’s feat was broadcast in newspapers around the country, bringing much cheer to the Union cause.     

The pinnacle of James Garfield’s service during the Civil War took place on September 20, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga. As E.V. Smalley, journalist for the New York Tribune, wrote in 1880, “Such by this time had come to be Garfield’s influence, that he was nearly always consulted and often followed. He wrote every order issued that day – one only excepted. …The one order which he did not write was the fatal order to [division commander General Thomas] Wood which lost the battle.” That order, misunderstood by Wood, allowed the right wing of the Union forces to be destroyed.    

Garfield, refusing to believe the battle was lost, rode through Confederate lines to get to the left wing under the command of General George Thomas. In this ride some of his escorts were killed. Garfield assisted Thomas in evacuating the field as safely as possible, and for his efforts Brigadier General Garfield was breveted to Major General.


Read more about James as Congressman, running his presidential campaign from his Mentor farm, and as 20th President of the United States. 

1. Smalley, E.V., "The White House." The Century Magazine (New York, Scribners & Co., 1884) vol. XXVI, No. 6, p. 807. 

2. Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams, ed., The Diary of James A. Garfield, Volume III (Michigan State University Press, 1973), November 11, 1875. 

3. John Shaw, Crete and James Garfield: Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 1994) p. 240

4. Ibid. pp 244-245

5. Mary Garfield Stanley-Brown, "Pictured by Their Children, President Garfield by his daughter." The Youth's Companion (Boston: Perry Mason & Company), September 12, 1893 #3461, p. 458. 
 

James A Garfield National Historic Site

Last updated: November 17, 2021