19 November: Lincoln and Garfield

This day in the 19th century was more of a coincidence than a connection, but still Abraham Lincoln and James A Garfield shared seminal events on this day, 32 years apart.

On 19 November 1831 James A Garfield was born in Orange Township, Ohio.  As a young man his education started late, but he took to language and public speaking naturally and entered the Ohio legislature in 1861.  In August of the same year he was commissioned a colonel in the Ohio volunteers, and marched with his regiment in the Army of the Ohio under Don C Buell.  As one of the last units to cross the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing in April 1862, Garfield commanded a brigade during the non-pursuit of the retreating Confederate Army of Tennessee, stopping after a brief skirmish with Nathan B Forrest’s rear guards at Fallen Timbers on the road between the Shiloh battlefield and Corinth, Mississippi.  It was his last combat command.  After a period of rehabilitation after a bout of jaundice, Garfield was elected to Congress in 1862, despite the fact that he was serving as chief of staff to William S Rosecrans in the Army of the Cumberland at the time.  He was promoted to major general of volunteers before he resigned his commission to take his seat in Congress in December 1863, after serving during the fighting at Chickamauga and the subsequent siege of Chattanooga.  Garfield served in the House of Representatives until his election as President in 1880.  His presidency was brief  (four months, effectively) before he was shot in July 1881, lingering until mid-September.  His assassin’s trial was nearly as long as his administration.

On 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln was the last of several speakers at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield.  His speech was short–less than two hundred words–and following Edward Everett’s two hour oration most of the audience didn’t even hear most of it.  Lincoln was not a pleasing speaker to listen to, with a somewhat high-pitched, sing-song delivery.  Too, Lincoln was to deliver “a few appropriate remarks,” not a campaign stump speech or a rousing after-dinner stem-winder.  The reader needs to remember that there had been some fifty thousand casualties at Gettysburg, that many of the casualties had been evacuated as late as October, and that there were still unburied dead on those fields, including the carcasses of thousands of horses.  The graves for the amputated limbs at the field hospitals had still not been limed.  But of every speaker that spoke to that audience, only the bold and uncompromisingly powerful speech that included “[f]our score and seven years ago,” and “of the people, and by the people” were ever remembered, even a week after it was delivered.  And for every version of that Gettysburg Address that exists (at least four at the time), none has ever been forgotten.  One modern scholar called it “the words that remade America.”

But there is another connection, not quite a celebrated: Lincoln was the first, and Garfield the second, US president to be assassinated.  Which makes Garfield’s birthday and Lincoln’s most celebrated speech all the more poignant that they happened on the same calender day.

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