Three Ohio Civil War Veterans Who Became President

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved


Five Ohio-born Civil War veterans later became President of the United States. William Tecumseh Sherman might have been a sixth, but he famously refused to be nominated. The first was Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious hero and general in chief who captured three Confederate armies and who served two terms as the 18th President succeeding Andrew Johnson, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln’s second Vice President. Grant, of course, deserves separate treatment by himself and also began his Civil War career in Illinois, not Ohio.

Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President, was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”), the first president to die in office. Benjamin Harrison, son of a U.S. Congressman, moved to Indianapolis to practice law with the brother of General Lew Wallace (of Ben-Hur fame) and was more associated with Indiana than Ohio. He commanded the 70th Indiana Volunteers and distinguished himself at the Battle of Peach Tree Creek outside Atlanta in 1864 against Hood. He won the Republication nomination in 1888 over the U.S. Senator from Ohio, John Sherman, the general’s brother. He defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland, who had been the first Democratic president elected since the Civil War, even though he had received fewer popular votes. He was defeated in his re-election bid in 1892 by his predecessor, Grover Cleveland. Curiously, Harrison’s granddaughter by his second wife would marry the great grandson of President James Garfield.

This article will recount the Civil War experiences of the remaining three Ohioans and also add some information about their presidencies, two of which were cut short by assassination.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes

A graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, Hayes was a Cincinnati lawyer in 1861. He and his home guard company, mostly comprised of members of the city’s Literary Club, enlisted, with Hayes becoming a captain, in the 23rd OVI, commanded by William Rosecrans. Hayes would later succeed him as colonel of the regiment (with two companies from Cleveland). A diarist, he wrote almost daily about his experience.

The 23rd saw its first action in September 1861 in West Virginia. On May 10, 1862, serving under Jacob Cox in West Virginia, Hayes suffered the first of four wounds that he received during the war. James Monroe is the only other American president who was wounded in battle.

Transferred to the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan, Cox’s Kanawha Division led the attack at Fox’s Gap at South Mountain on September 14, 1862, where Hayes was again wounded leading the 23rd. Hayes was subsequently promoted to brigade commander in the Kanawha Division. His next action was to pursue John Hunt Morgan in his July 1863 cavalry raid in Ohio, engaging him shortly before his capture at Buffington Island.

Back in West Virginia and now serving under fellow Ohioan George Crook, Hayes’s brigade took part in the 1864 campaigns in West Virginia and then in the Shenandoah Valley under Generals David Hunter and Phil Sheridan. At Kernstown in July, Hayes was credited with enabling Crook’s force to escape from Jubal Early. During the course of this battle, Hayes received his third wound. He also was a hero at Opequon (Third Winchester) in September, taking over command of his division when its commander was wounded. Hayes’s troops then participated in Crook’s successful flanking movement at Fisher’s Hill. Hayes and his wife Lucy named their fifth son, born a week following this battle, after George Crook.

Elected to Congress on October 18, 1864, Hayes was to play a more humbling role the next day at Cedar Creek. His division was routed by John Gordon’s surprise attack and Hayes was wounded for the fourth time (and had his horse killed under him). After Sheridan’s successful counterattack and rout of Early, Hayes was promoted to major general. He was preparing to attack Lynchburg when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

After serving in Congress, Hayes returned home to be elected Governor of Ohio in 1867, serving three terms and helping to found Ohio State University. At the Republican convention in Cincinnati in 1876 (the centennial anniversary of the United States), favorite son Hayes won the nomination over two contending rivals. He won the presidency that fall over Democrat Samuel Tilden, reform governor of New York, in one of the most controversial elections in American history. Despite Tilden’s edge in the popular vote, on a straight party line vote (including Garfield’s), a special congressional commission awarded disputed elections in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina to Hayes, giving him 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184.

Opponents called Hayes “Rutherfraud.” Allegedly, Democrats did not dispute this outcome based on an agreement that Hayes would withdraw the remaining federal troops from the South, formally ending Reconstruction. Hayes did. In addition, he used federal troops to end the 1877 railroad strike and unsuccessfully campaigned for civil service reform. With his wife’s approval, he banned alcohol in the White House, earning her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.” True to his campaign pledge, he served only one term.

James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield

The last president born in a log cabin (in Orange, now Moreland Hills), a graduate of Williams College, Garfield was a college president and Ohio state senator (rooming in Columbus with future fellow general, Jacob Cox) when the war began.

After being rebuffed in his attempts to be elected colonel of two Ohio volunteer regiments, he was appointed by the governor to head (and recruit) the 42nd OVI. With a small force of Ohio and Kentucky volunteers, Garfield defeated a similar Confederate force in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky in January 1862. This resulted in his promotion to Brigadier General, commanding a brigade in Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Serving as the rearguard, it was not engaged in the second day’s battle at Shiloh.

Elected to Congress in the fall of 1862, his next military assignment was to replace the chief of staff of the Army of the Cumberland (now commanded by William Rosecrans, former commander of the 23rd OVI), who had been killed at the Battle of Stone’s River. Garfield was instrumental in the successful Tullahoma Campaign that forced Braxton Bragg’s army out of Chattanooga. At Chickamauga, Garfield gained fame by leaving the departing Rosecrans, after Longstreet’s breakthrough on the second day, and riding to join George Thomas on Snodgrass Hill.

Promoted to Major General, Garfield resigned from the army in December 1863 to take his seat in Congress as its youngest member. A leader in the postwar Republican party, he became a dark horse compromise candidate at the 1880 Republican Chicago convention that denied Ulysses Grant a third presidential nomination. Instead, Garfield was nominated on the 36th ballot. His unlikely running mate was New Yorker Chester Arthur, the collector of customs previously fired by Hayes for incompetence and corruption.

Garfield barely beat former Union Civil War hero Winfield Scott Hancock in the popular vote, but easily won the electoral college vote. Garfield is the only minister and the only member of the U.S. House of Representatives ever directly elected president.

During his brief time as the 20th president, Garfield was occupied with the conflict between party patronage demands and reformer opposition. While awaiting a train in Washington, D.C., accompanied by Secretary of State James Blaine and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, on July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot in the back by a disappointed office seeker, Charles Guiteau. Due to blood poisoning caused by his doctors’ probing for the bullet that entered his body, Garfield died after lingering for 79 days. Ironically, his successor – Chester Arthur, the party hack – signed the Pendleton Act, creating civil service reform.

Garfield is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland. The Garfield Monument there was dedicated in 1890.

William McKinley

William McKinley

At the age of 18, William McKinley of Poland (near Youngstown) enlisted as a private in the regiment commanded by Rutherford B. Hayes – the 23rd OVI. Befriended by Hayes, McKinley, now a sergeant and quartermaster, gained renown at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 by carrying rations under fire to Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps. McKinley later became a staff officer, ending his military career in the Shenandoah Valley as a major.

Postwar, McKinley became a lawyer in Canton and then Stark County prosecutor. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives during 1877-1891. He was best known for the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, arguably leading to the Democratic landslide election victory that year and causing the 1893 Depression.

McKinley was elected Ohio Governor in 1891 and left in 1896 to run for president, with Cleveland industrialist and U.S. Senator Mark Hanna as his campaign manager. Hanna was a powerful fundraiser and also employed new advertising techniques in McKinley’s successful front porch campaign against Democratic western populist William Jennings Bryan (who delivered the “Cross of Gold” speech arguing for a free silver currency standard).

The 25th president was the last Civil War veteran to hold this office. During his first term, despite his opposition to demands for the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish empire, after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor, McKinley presided over the Spanish-American War. This led to the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines by the U.S. In the Philippines, the U.S. then had to fight another war lasting 14 years to subdue native guerillas opposed to the American occupation. The United States also annexed Hawaii.

With war hero and former New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt as his new running mate, McKinley easily won re-election in 1900 over Bryan in a rematch. On September 5, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, McKinley was shot at a public reception by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, a former Cleveland resident. He died from gangrene after complications from surgery eight days later, allowing Teddy Roosevelt to become president, to the great dismay of Mark Hanna. One of James Garfield’s sons served as the Secretary of the Interior under Roosevelt. In memory of McKinley who wore one daily, the red carnation was later named Ohio’s state flower.


Armstrong, William. 2000. Major McKinley: William McKinley & the Civil War. Kent State University Press.

Perry, James M. 2003. Touched With Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them. New York: Public Affairs.

Peskin, Allan. 1978. Garfield: A Biography. Kent State University Press.

Williams, T. Harry. 1965. Hayes of the Twenty-third: The Civil War Volunteer Officer. New York: Knopf, Presidential Museums.

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