Written by: Mark Holbrook
Ohio’s contributions to the Civil War are well documented. 325,000 soldiers and sailors, 229 Union generals, members of Lincoln’s cabinet, extraordinary efforts on the home front and countless stories of courage in uniform and at home. Ohioans’ status as leaders during the war no doubt impacted the nation’s decision making in the coming years when electing presidents. Seven times U.S. citizens chose a former soldier from the Buckeye state from 1868 to 1896. They represented everything from the most famous general of the war to established politicians to the grandson of a former president from Ohio. Five veterans of the war lead our country during a period not dominated by a single state since the early years of the republic.
Flush from his victory over Robert E. Lee and the end of the Civil War, it was not long before Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was being recruited as a candidate for the presidency in the 1868 election. Times were not good as Reconstruction had not gone well under former vice president Andrew Johnson. The country and Congress were looking for someone they could trust, and the immensely popular Grant was an obvious answer. Born in Point Pleasant, Grant had never entertained the thought of becoming a famous general, much less the president. He did not even want to attend West Point Academy, but deference to his father’s wishes kept him there. Through a tumultuous early life, Grant was down on his luck at the beginning of the war, but quickly rose to a prominence that would carry him to the White House. During his two terms in office, Grant worked to sooth the nation’s wounds by supporting amnesty for former Confederate leaders and the protection of African American rights. While in office, he signed legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park as our first national park.
Rutherford B. Hayes followed Grant as our 19th president. Born in Delaware and a resident of Fremont when elected, Hayes was elected to Congress in 1864, but did not take his seat in the Capitol until the war was over. He began his Army career as the major for the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, rising to the rank of major general by 1865. While beginning his third term in Congress, he was nominated as the Republican candidate for president. The results were close, so close that a special commission chosen to sort out disputed electoral votes declared Hayes the victor. Serving one term as president, Hayes signed the bill allowing female attorneys to argue cases before the Supreme Court. Hayes initiated civil service reform, doing away with the common practice of making appointments for political favors. Hayes often expressed concern for minorities, the poor, and immigrants and worked to bring about changes in policy to address those concerns.
James A. Garfield was the last of what were called the ‘log cabin’ presidents. Born in Cuyahoga County in 1831, Garfield would go on to serve nine terms as a congressman from Ohio, the first starting in 1863 when his election caused him to resign from the Union Army with the rank of major general. As the 1880 elections neared, Garfield worked tirelessly to get his friend and fellow congressman John Sherman of Lancaster nominated at the convention. The effort failed and Garfield became the nominee on the 37th ballot and the dark horse candidate in a race against former Union general Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield continued Hayes’ efforts to end patronage appointments in government, going to battle with powerful factions controlling the port of New York. On July 2, 1881 at a Washington railroad station Garfield was assassinated by Charles Julius Guiteau, an attorney who had been turned down by Garfield for a political appointment. Mortally wounded, Garfield would linger until September 19, leaving us to wonder what kind of presidency he would have had if he had survived. Garfield’s vice president Chester Arthur finished the term, and Grover Cleveland occupied the Whitehouse for the succeeding four years.
Born in 1833 on a farm by the Ohio River below Cincinnati, Benjamin Harrison attended Miami University in Ohio and read law in Cincinnati. He later moved to Indianapolis where he lived when the war broke out. The presidency of the country was something Benjamin was familiar with, his grandfather William Henry Harrison had served as our ninth president. As colonel of the 70th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Benjamin Harrison fought in the western theatre of the war, and he and his regiment accompanied General William T. Sherman on his march to Savannah, Georgia. In the presidential election of 1888, Harrison opposed the incumbent Grover Cleveland. While Harrison lost the popular vote by 100,000, he won the Electoral College vote 233-168. Harrison’s most notable act as president came on July 2, 1890 when he signed in to law the Sherman Antitrust Act. The act, named for Ohio Senator John Sherman was the first measure passed by the U.S. Congress to prohibit trusts.
After a return to office by Grover Cleveland in 1893, the last of the five Civil War veterans from Ohio would take office. Nineteen year-old William McKinley of Niles enlisted in the 23rd Ohio at the beginning of the war. Rising to the rank of major by war’s end, McKinley returned home and began a law practice, eventually getting elected to Congress and then two terms as governor of Ohio. Winning the election in 1896, McKinley took office amid a time of prosperity in the country. But war would be most remembered as a part of his legacy. While preferring a neutral stance to Spain’s imperialism in the Caribbean, McKinley led the country into a 100 day war that destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Santiago harbor in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico. The result was the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii. In 1900, McKinley faced the democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan for a second time and defeated him again to win the presidency. On September 14, 1901, while standing in a receiving line at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The 25th president died eight days later.
In a period spanning 1869 to 1901, five Ohio Civil War veterans were elected to the presidency seven times. Of varying backgrounds, they all held in common their service to their country and the preservation of the Union.