The Nearly Forgotten President
By Tom Morrow
About the only place you’ll see our 20th president’s name these days is on a few elementary schools scattered around the nation. Other than that James Abram Garfield has been all but forgotten.
Two historical facts to know about Garfield: He was shot by an assassin four months into his presidency and was the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected to the White House.
If you’re keeping notes, Gerald Ford doesn’t count because he never was “elected” president. He was appointed vice president out of the House to fill the vacancy left by the death of Nelson Rockfeller, who had been appointed to fill the vacancy left by Spiro Agnew, who resigned over some questionable campaign financing. Ford ascended to the White House upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.
Now, back to Garfield.
James was the 20th president serving from March to Sept. 19, 1881. He served only four months before being shot. He lingered agonizing and died two months later. The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was a disgruntledly job-seeker trying for a government position. Garfield was born Nov. 19, 1831 into poverty in a log cabin and grew up in Northeast Ohio. He studied law and became an attorney before entering politics as a Republican in 1857.
Garfield opposed the Confederate states’ secession; he served as a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War, and fought in the historic battles of Middle Creek, Shiloh, and Chickamauga. He was elected to Congress in 1862 to represent Ohio’s 19th district.
Throughout Garfield’s congressional service he initially agreed with the so-called “Radical” Republican views on Reconstruction, but later favored a moderate approach to civil rights enforcement for freed slaves. At the 1880 GOP National Convention, Garfield, who had not sought the White House, was a compromise nominee on the 36th ballot. He conducted a low-key “front-porch” campaign and narrowly won.
Garfield’s accomplishments included a resurgence of presidential authority in executive appointments; purging corruption in the U.S. Post Office and he enhanced the powers of the presidency when he defied the powerful U.S. Sen. Roscoe Conkling, R-New York which ended with Conkling’s resignation from the Senate.
Senator Conkling was leader of the so-called GOP “ Stalwart” faction. He was the first GOP senator from New York to be elected three terms, and the last person to turn down a U.S. Supreme Court appointment after having been confirmed.
President Garfield was a visionary for his time as he advocated agricultural technology, an educated electorate, and civil rights for African-Americans. He also proposed substantial civil service reforms known as the “Pendleton Civil Service Act, which was passed posthumously by Congress in 1883.
On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot the president at the Washington, D.C. Baltimore and Potomac railroad station The wound was not immediately fatal, but he died from a series of infections caused by his doctors’ repeated attempts to remove the bullet.
Guiteau was executed for Garfield’s murder in June 1882.
Song of the Desert
The late Murray Davison of Carlsbad recalled being a special services band member in North Africa during World War II performing for the U.S. Army Air Corps and the British 8th Army.
Murray’s band arguably won the first Allied victory against the “Desert Fox,” Germany’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. In June 1943, Davison’s 17-member orchestra convoy was traveling across North Africa.
“I was driving the lead vehicle down this lonely road in the middle of the desert when suddenly we came upon a heavily-armed unit of 300 Italian soldiers,” Davison said with vivid recollection.
“We all thought we were dead — we were scared to death, but then we spotted a white flag.”
Murray said the Italians were all on foot, except for a small Fiat sports car that a couple of the officers were driving.
“They gave us the Fiat and an Italian major handed over his Beretta automatic pistol to me, said Davison.
Davison. “Those guys were starving. We fed them all our rations and then headed for the nearest British Army base.”
When our boys in the band showed up at the front gate of the British Army installation with 300 enemy prisoners, the colonel in charge couldn’t believe his eyes.
“The Italians had been deserted by the Germans. The
‘Eye-ties’ hated the Germans for having been treated with contempt by their supposed ally,” Davison explained. “They told us they were more than delighted to be taken prisoner by the Americans and British.”
Davison said he and the band got a unit citation for the “capture” of the 300 Italians. That evening the band played a concert with everyone attending. The band was written up in Yank magazine, as well as Stars & Stripes newspaper.
And, to think, the enemy surrendered to Davison’s band without first hearing them play.