A presidential take on Civil War battles

There was a time when electing a retired general to be president was not an exception but a rule in American politics. Beginning with the first term of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 and ending with Theodore Roosevelt’s first retirement from public life in 1909, generals and military men were elected to all but two terms.

Members of America’s greatest generation of the 19th century, the Civil War veterans were the dominant political leaders of the Gilded Age. They were mostly Midwestern, battle-tested Union commanders with political but not much military experience. Grant was the exception. They had many remarkable and similar characteristics; presidential greatness was not among them.

Journalist James Perry’s intriguing book Touched with Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles that Made Them is not supposed to be about the presidency or really about the Civil War for that matter. Yet it offers a singular view of both. The reader gets a glimpse of the crucible of leadership forged in the field. Perry offers profiles of five leaders — Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley — by reviewing the key battles they fought. The story is told through the letters and diaries of young men facing death and defeat. These men succeeded in ways they never quite imagined, with the possible exception of the ambitious and cunning Garfield.

The profile on Gen. Garfield at the Battle of Chickamauga provides an interesting example of why he succeeded in politics despite the near disaster the Union suffered in that battle. Most of the credit for holding back a Confederate rout rightfully belongs to Gen. George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” but Garfield could easily have been its goat because it was he who had urged the Union forces under Gen. William Rosecrans to move forward and into a trap. Still, Garfield’s overall strategy would have been correct, had Union troops moved more quickly and boldly — as Grant would prove later.

When things got dicey at Chickamauga, Garfield went forward to assist Thomas in holding the line, rather than help organize a retreat with Rosecrans. It was Rosecrans who later was relieved of command while Garfield was promoted.

Strategy, timing and bold action set Garfield apart. Above all, he knew when to change horses. His deft maneuvering at the Republican Convention of 1880 should surprise no one who was with Garfield at Chickamauga.

Hayes and McKinley served in the same regiment, the 23rd Ohio Volunteers. McKinley was a mere teenage private, while young Maj. Hayes did the leading and inspiring. McKinley’s first impression of his senior officer is particularly interesting: “[He] was so generous and his relations with his men so kind and, yet always dignified that he won my heart almost from the start. … Our confidence in our leader never wavered.” Hayes’s personal appeal and steady judgment helped him win many later elections and then hold together a nation following the disputed presidential election of 1876.

Through such well-selected historical evidence, Perry offers us a unique glimpse at the key events and the critical characteristics that led five men to the White House.

Book reviewed:
Touched with Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them
By James M. Perry
314 pages; $26
Public Affairs, 2003