True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

James Abram Garfield



The Second Martyred President

I am about to tell you the story of another boy who began life almost as poor as Abraham Lincoln, and who like him rose to be President of the United States. He, too, was without warning killed by a base and wicked murderer. He was the second American President to be murdered, and there was soon to be a third. Men are often killed for some wrong or injustice they have done, but these were three of the best and kindest men, as well as the ablest, who ever held the office of President, and this makes their murder all the more dreadful.

But this comes later on in my story. What I have now to tell is how another farmer boy, like Lincoln and Grant, rose by the same qualities of industry and push to greatness, and was elected to the highest office in the United States.

About seventy years ago, when the great State of Ohio was little more than a wilderness, a man by the name of Abram Garfield moved from the State of New York out into that wild country, and settled in Cuyahoga County. The name Cuyahoga is an Indian word, and at that time there were a great many Indians in the State. Abram Garfield had married, before going to Ohio, a young woman by the name of Eliza Ballou, whose ancestors had fled from persecution in France about one hundred and fifty years before.

When Abram Garfield and his young wife moved to Ohio they settled in what was known as "The Wilderness," where quite a number of other people from Connecticut had recently moved and built houses for themselves. The whole country was covered with great forests, and the first work to be done was to clear away a place in the woods and build a log cabin.

It had but one room, with a door, three windows, and a chimney at one end. Abram Garfield and his wife had three children when they moved to this rough country, and about a year after they got there their youngest son was born. They named him James Abram—"Abram" being for his father. There were now mother and father and four children living in this little log-cabin out in the wilderness.

Garfield's birthplace


All day long the father cut trees in the forest, or worked in his new fields among the stumps which were still left in the ground; but he was very industrious and raised enough on the farm to support his family, while Mrs. Garfield, with her spinning-wheel and loom, was all day busy in spinning thread and weaving cloth to make them clothes.

They had no servant, but waited on themselves, not only growing cattle, hogs and chickens on their little farm, and raising the corn and wheat which they ate, but also spinning and weaving the cloth which Mrs. Garfield made into clothes for the children. Don't you think this was a very hard life? So it would be to most of our young people now, but it was the kind of life which many of the settlers in the wild western country had to lead. Yet they owned their little farm and house; both together, perhaps, worth two or three hundred dollars. Of course, they had to do their cooking, eating, sleeping, receive their company, spin and weave and make their clothes, all in their little one-room house.

Still they were honest and contented, and every morning when Mr. Garfield went away, with his axe on his shoulder or to follow the plough, you might have heard him whistling or singing a merry tune. As soon as breakfast was over the little fellows, in the summer, were out of doors, or away in the woods to pick berries, or to bring wood for their mother to cook with, or to carry water from the spring, which was some distance from the house.

At night, when they sat alone in their little cabin, their father or mother would read, or they would tell them stories about the old times in Connecticut or New York, or about the long and weary journey from New York to Ohio, and the wonderful things that they saw on their way. So, with all, as I have told you, it was a very happy and contented little household.

Mr. Garfield was beginning to be prosperous. It did not take much to be prosperous in those days. What he looked forward to was to have a big farm some day, and build a house which would have as many as three rooms, or maybe four. But suddenly, one day, he came home very ill. There were few doctors in that wild wilderness, and those who were there, as a rule, knew very little about the practice of medicine; so, after a short illness, the good man died when he was only thirty-three years of age.

Garfield on the tow-path


Can you think of anything more sad than this—a little one-room log-cabin, far out in the forests of Ohio, with very few neighbors near enough to visit them, the husband dead. and the poor woman with her four little children, left alone so far away from her friends and relatives in the East? Do you not think the first thing she should do would be to try to sell her little farm, and with her children go back to New York or Connecticut?

But this was not what Mrs. Garfield did. She determined to remain in her little home, and, with her own hands, try to make a living and raise her children. She was a good woman and had a fair education, and she taught her little ones and read to them out of good books.

James was still a baby, and for several years it was a life of struggle and privation. The mother was so poor that, if she had lived in one of the great cities, the people would have thought they must go to her aid and send her food and clothing to help her in her distress, and so they should; but it was different far out in the wilderness. Almost everybody was poor there, and lived on the plainest of food, and dressed in the plainest clothes, and there were no rich people to be seen.

When little James was only three years old a neighboring school was started in a little log-hut, and he was sent along with the other children. Before he was four years of age he had learned to read; and by the time he was ten, it is said, he had borrowed and read nearly all the books in his neighborhood. From that time until the close of his life he was a great reader and student.

By the time he was ten years of age he had learned to do almost everything about the farm which could be done by so small a boy. He not only helped the other children and his mother, but, when they had done their own work, he frequently went to other farms and worked for the neighbors that he might make a little money to help his mother along.

He had very little time to play, so he made play out of his work by doing it always cheerfully. All the spring and summer the children worked, but every winter their mother sent them to the little neighborhood school. It is said there was never a day in Mrs. Garfield's home that she and the children did not read certain parts of the Bible. In this way Garfield came to manhood knowing a large portion of the Bible by heart and very familiar with it all.

He was fond of reading Cooper's "Sea Tales;" and the story of "Long Tom" and his wonderful adventures on the ocean filled him with delight. It made him want to go to sea himself so much that in 1848, when he was seventeen years old, he left home and went to Cleveland, Ohio, and offered to go on board of one of the great lake schooners as a sailor.

It was a day or two before the ship would go out, and during that time Garfield learned that the sailors, as a rule, were very rough men and that life on the sea was not so jolly and pleasant as he had supposed. So he decided he would not go on the lake, and immediately turned away from the shore and started home; but he had not gone very far before he began to feel ashamed of himself.

He had used all his money, and he did not like to go 'back home that way. Besides, like many other ambitious boys, he thought he ought to do something to tell the people about when he got home. So he went to the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal, on which they ran boats drawn by horses on the bank, and he hired himself to drive the horses on one of these boats. He was to receive twelve dollars a month for his work.

James had been used to driving horses at home on the farm, and during his trip on the towpath he did his work so well and pleased his employers so much that at the end of the round trip they promoted him from the position of a driver, by putting him on board the boat to steer it instead of driving the horses. James thought this was quite an advance; but it proved to be very much more dangerous than driving the horses, for he had to stand on the edge of the boat and work the rudder; and several times he fell overboard, and was in danger of drowning

Garfield as a boy


It was not long before he felt the need of an education, so he left his work on the canal and entered a high school, called a seminary, at Chester, Ohio, about ten miles from his home. He had very little money, and he and three young men boarded themselves. They rented a room for a small price, made their own beds, cooked their own food, and ate in their own room.

In his vacations he did carpenter work when he could get it to do, and at other times he worked in the harvest-fields, and did anything and everything to earn money for his schooling. After his first term, he was able, in this way, to take care of himself entirely, and did not ask his mother or any one else for their aid.

Garfield was always one of the best students in the school. He also joined heartily in athletic sports with the other young men to keep up his bodily strength. He was as good at all kinds of sports, and as ready for them, as he was at hard study. He played ball and practiced boxing and other active exercises, and was always a manly and brave fellow.

Garfield attended this school for three winters, and in August, 1851, he entered a higher school known as Hiram College. From this moment his desire to get a good education grew stronger. He paid all his expenses at this school by teaching in one of the departments and working during his vacation. After three years he was not only prepared to go to one of the finest colleges in the East, but had saved three hundred and fifty dollars toward paying his expenses.

In the fall of 1853 he left his native State, Ohio, and journeyed east and entered Williams College, Massachusetts. Two years later he graduated from that fine school, and straightway was made the Professor of Languages and Literature in Hiram College, which he had formerly attended; and the very next year, when he was twenty-six years old, he was made President of Hiram College.

One year later, he married Miss Lucretia Rudolph, one of his old schoolmates with whom he had fallen in love while at Chester Seminary.

Mr. Garfield continued to be President of Hiram College for five years, and under his wise management the college took on new life. There were very soon twice as many students as there had been before, and everybody seemed to get some of Mr. Garfield's zeal. He grew so popular that in 1858, when some of his friends were running for an office, they begged him to make some speeches for them, which he did.

This made him still more popular. There is a good opening for a man who can make a sensible political speech, and in 1859 Garfield was elected to the State Senate of Ohio, where he became a very influential member. In 1861, when the war broke out, he persuaded the Ohio Senate to vote twenty thousand soldiers and three millions of dollars to fight for the Union.

This made Mr. Garfield so great a favorite in the State that the Governor of Ohio offered him the command of the Forty-second Regiment, which was then being organized for the war. Many of the young men in the regiment were, or had been, students, of Hiram College, of which Mr. Garfield had been President; so he consented to command the regiment, and in December, 1861, he took them down into Kentucky and Nest Virginia to join in the fighting.

One of the brave things that Garfield did as a soldier was at the great battle of Chickamauga, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The fighting had been very hard, and it looked as if the Confederates would be victorious. General Rosecrans thought they would surely win the day, so he with Colonel Garfield left the fighting ground and hastened to Chattanooga to make arrangements for his army to retreat so they would not be captured.

General Thomas was left to command the Union forces. As soon as they reached Chattanooga, Garfield begged General Rosecrans to let him go back to the battlefield and join General Thomas, This he did, and with his help General Thomas made a fresh assault on the Confederates, and drove them back far enough to permit the Union forces to retreat in perfect safety that night. For this gallant service, Colonel Garfield was made major-general.

Soon after the great battle of Chickamauga, Garfield was elected to Congress, and though his salary as major-general was double that of a congressman, he felt that he could do more good at Washington, so he gave up his position in the army and went to Congress.

Here he was as attentive to business and as industrious as he had been when a boy at work, a student at school and president of a college. He had many honors given him in Congress, and in 1877, when Mr. Blaine became a Senator, Mr. Garfield was made leader of his party, and three years later the State of Ohio elected him to the United States Senate.

But his great honor came in June of that same year, when the Republican National Convention in Chicago nominated him for President of the United States over and above all the other great statesmen and warriors whom the nation wanted to honor. General Hancock, who had also fought in the war with General Garfield, was nominated by the Democratic party for the same office; but General Garfield was elected. In a little while he removed with his family from Ohio to the White House at Washington. Was not this a great step up from his early home with its log walls and its one room?

Some of Mr. Garfield's most determined enemies were the leading men of the nation. By that we do not mean the best men, but they were brilliant and learned and shrewd men, and great politicians, like Mr. Conkling of New York, who was a member of the United States Senate. Mr. Conkling did everything he could to make President Garfield unhappy, and to throw all the difficulties possible in his way. This was because the President would not appoint to office the men that Conkling wanted, but chose men that he thought better fitted for the work to be done.

Finally, Mr. Conkling, finding that he could not control the Senators as he tried to do, resigned his place in the United States Senate and went home. Mr. Platt, another Senator from New York, did the same thing. These things made a great commotion among the political leaders, and perhaps was the cause of the tragedy which followed.

Garfield assassination


On July 2, 1881, after Mr. Garfield had been in office only a few months, he rose early and went to the railway station to take the train for Massachusetts. He was going back to Williams College to attend the closing exercises of that school, and several members of his cabinet and their friends were going with him.

James G. Blaine, the great Maine statesman and orator, was his Secretary of State, and rode with President Garfield to the station. Mrs. Garfield, who had been at Long Branch, New Jersey, where she had gone to cure herself of malarial fever, was to join them at New York. A fine private car was waiting for the President and his party.

Presently the carriage drove up to the door, and President Garfield and Secretary Blaine, looking very happy, stepped out, smiling to the crowd that stood around. They passed inside the door of the waiting-room. A slender, middle-aged man had for some time been walking nervously up and down the room. As the President and Mr. Blaine came in, he quickly drew a pistol from his pocket and, taking deliberate aim, shot the President in the shoulder. Mr. Garfield turned quickly to see who had shot him, when the assassin fired again, and the President sank to the floor, the blood gushing from his side. Secretary Blaine sprang for the murderer, but others caught him, and Mr. Blaine went back to the President's side.

They placed the wounded President on a mattress and carried him swiftly to the White House, where he quickly gave orders that a message should be sent to Mrs. Garfield, asking her to come home immediately. Mr. Garfield's message was: "Tell her I am seriously hurt, but I am myself, and hope she will come to see me soon. I send her my love."

That evening Mrs. Garfield was at her husband's side. For almost three months the brave, strong man struggled between life and death through the hot summer days. At last he was removed to Elberon, on the ocean shore near Long Branch, New Jersey, and placed in a cottage where the cooling breezes of the sea brought him much relief, and it was hoped would save his life; but it was not to be.

President Garfield died at night, September 19th, almost without a struggle. The news were flashed all over the world by telegraph wires, and nearly every town and all the cities in the United States were draped in mourning.

The President's remains were taken back to Washington, where great throngs of people viewed them, and thousands of faces were wet with tears as they passed his coffin. The sad funeral procession then moved slowly to Cleveland, Ohio, where a splendid tomb was prepared on the shores of Lake Erie, not far from his old home, and it was there they laid him down to rest. All along the way the moving train passed through lines of sorrowful-faced people, who stood with uncovered heads and with tearful eyes as the train moved by. In the House of Representatives at Washington, a few months later, Secretary Blaine delivered a great speech in praise of the dead President, telling how grand a man he had been, and the splendid service the Ohio canal boy had given to his country.