President James A. Garfield: The Forgotten Assassination

James A. Garfield stamp
James A. Garfield stamp Sn 205 Issued 2/15/1882 Color Yellow brown Printer American Bank Note Co. Printing Recess

On September 19, 1881, James A. Garfield became the fourth U.S. President to die in office, and the second one assassinated when he passed away from an infection and internal hemorrhage after being shot on July 2.

Log cabin stamp
Log Cabin stamp Log Cabin Sn 1074 Issued 4/5/1956 Color Dark blue Printing Recess

Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, the last President to be born in a log cabin. He grew up in a poor family in northeastern Ohio. His father, Abram, died in 1833, and his mother’s remarriage ended in a public and scandalous divorce. The boy coped partly by reading.

At 16, James left home, failed at becoming a sailor, and worked tending canal boat mules for a few weeks until he was forced to return home after becoming ill.

He was convinced to start attending school instead of trying to find work again. He promised only a year, but the spark hit him, and he spent two years at Geauga Seminary before finding work as a teacher. Only then did he learn that some people worked their way through college, and he decided to do so.

Flag of Ohio, Bicentennial Stamp Sn 1649 Issued 2/23/1976 Colors Multicolor Printing Photogravure
Flag of Ohio, Bicentennial Stamp Sn 1649 Issued 2/23/1976 Colors Multicolor Printing Photogravure

He began studying at what is now Hiram College, working as a janitor at first, but eventually becoming an instructor. He then attended Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to finish his degree in 1854. He was particularly interested in languages and learned public speaking.

James Garfield was recruited by the Republican Party and elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1860. He served for just one year, but with distinction, if not to great effect. His main contribution was a failed attempt to start an Ohio Geological Survey.

James A. Garfield stamp
James A. Garfield stamp Sn 723 Issued 8/18/1932 Color Deep orange Printing Recess

At the end of the legislative session in 1861 he was asked by Ohio Governor William Dennison to recruit for Ohio’s volunteer forces. He was very successful and was appointed Colonel of the Ohio 42nd Ohio Infantry in August. His first assignment was to recruit his own soldiers. He was the only one in the regiment to begin with.

Garfield earned his way to the rank of Brigadier General and was made Chief of Staff to General William Rosencrans. The aide’s advice was able to secure several victories that Rosencrans thought were lost.

At the same time, in 1862, he was again recruited by the Republican Party, this time for a Congressional seat, and was elected in October of that year without campaigning himself. He served in that seat for nine terms, quickly rising to leadership position, and passing military reform and other legislation with the assistance of President Lincoln.

In 1880, Garfield was elected to the U.S. Senate by the General Assembly of Ohio. At that time, Senators were not directly elected by popular vote. Unfortunately for his Senate career, he was never seated in the Senate.

James A. Garfield stamp
James A. Garfield stamp Sn 825 Issued 11/10/1938 Color Blue green Designer Elaine Rawlinson Printing Recess

Despite being only 20 years old, the Republican Party was already split into strong factions by 1880. The old guard “Stalwarts,” and a group wishing civil service reforms to move government from a patronage system to something more equitable. During the convention, the delegates split between Stalwart former President Grant and the reform candidate James Blaine. Garfield supported a second reform candidate John Sherman, who had supported Garfield for the Senate.

Ulysses S. Grant stamp
Ulysses S. Grant stamp Sn 223 Issued 6/14/1890 Color Chocolate Printing Recess

In order to break up an apparent deadlock, Garfield was thrown into the mix, over his own objections. Sherman’s and Blaine’s support collapsed and rallied behind the new candidate and Garfield became the nominee, apparently still over his objections.

With the reform group with the nominee, the stalwart supporter Chester A. Arthur was chosen as the Vice-Presidential candidate in an attempt to mollify the group. Garfield was able to convince the party bosses to come together for the election, and then retired to his Ohio front porch to wait out the election. At the time, campaigning for President was seen as unseemly.

General Winfield Scott Hancock was chosen as the Democratic Party nominee. He and his supporters made several errors during the campaign, and while it was a close election, Garfield was elected.

Winfield Scott Hancock stamp
Winfield Scott Hancock stamp Sn 2975n Issued 6/29/1995 Color Multicolor Printing Photogravure

Garfield (1831-1881) was the 20th President of the United States, serving for a tragically short time due to his assassination, but his life was marked by impressive achievements in education, the military, and politics.

Chester A. Arthur stamp
Chester A. Arthur stamp Sn 2218c Issued 5/22/ 1986 Color Beige Printing Offset lithography and Recess

In the 24th U.S. Presidential election, November 2, 1880, James A. Garfield was elected, receiving 214 electoral college votes, to Hancock’s 155. Both had won 19 states. Garfield received 4,446,158 votes (48.32%) and Hancock received 4,444,260 (48.21%). Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881.

On July 2, 1881, only 120 days into his presidency, as Garfield walked through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington, D.C., Charles Julius Guiteau approached the President and fired two shots. One bullet grazed Garfield’s arm, but the other lodged in his abdomen. The assassin’s motives were rooted in personal grievances and delusions. Guiteau had a history of “issues” and falsely believed he had played a large part in Garfield’s election and wanted to be rewarded by a major position in the new government. He was convicted and hanged in 1883.

There was great difficulty locating the bullet, and Garfield’s condition became dire as doctors struggled to find and treat it. Over the next several weeks, he endured excruciating pain, high fevers, and infection. The nation watched anxiously as medical and other experts, including Alexander Graham Bell, attempted to locate the bullet with a primitive metal detector.

Despite the best efforts of the medical team, Garfield’s health continued to deteriorate. His wife, Lucretia Garfield, remained by his side throughout his ordeal. They had married in 1858 and had 7 children together. On September 19, 1881, President James A. Garfield succumbed to his injuries and complications, passing away in Elberon, New Jersey.

James A. Garfield served 199 days in the office of President, having accomplished very little in his tenure. His service in the military during the Civil War and in the House of Representatives was where he made his greatest public contributions.

He was survived by his wife and 5 of his children.



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