In the final third of the 19th century, Civil War service was almost a prerequisite for those aspiring to be President of the United States. Seven of the next eight men who served as president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln served in the military on the Union side in some capacity during the Civil War.
Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th president upon the death of Lincoln. Johnson was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee at the beginning of the Civil War, but had remained loyal to the Union, the only Senator from a secessionist state to do so. This did not go unnoticed by the Lincoln Administration. Early in 1862, portions of Tennessee were captured by Union forces, and in March of 1862, Johnson was appointed military governor of his home state. The appointment included a commission as a Brigadier General in the Union Army. In 1864, Johnson was selected to be Lincoln’s running mate in the president’s reelection bid, replacing Hannibal Hamlin. It was thought that Johnson, a loyal southerner and Democrat, would be a strong choice for vice president on Lincoln’s National Union Party (a coalition of non-Radical Republicans and War Democrats) ticket. Six weeks after being sworn in as vice president, Johnson assumed the presidency upon the death of Lincoln. Johnson’s frequent clashes with Congress over how to deal with reconstruction and the reestablishment of governments in the former Confederacy led to his impeachment, though he was acquitted by one vote. Johnson was not nominated for a second term. In 1874, he was reelected to the U.S. Senate, the only former chief executive who returned to the senate after his presidency.
After Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, national war hero and general in chief of the Union Army, was elected the 18th President in 1868. Grant, a Republican, served two terms
(1869-1877). Grant’s administration is remembered for scandals and corruption among his appointees and in government departments in general, even though Grant himself was honest. However, his reputation has improved somewhat over the years as the accomplishments of his presidency have been reexamined. Grant worked for passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed African American men the right to vote (though it would take passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the promise of the amendment was fully realized) and used the army to help enforce civil rights in the former Confederate states during Reconstruction. He also worked to improve relations with the western and plains Indian tribes, and he signed the law establishing the nation’s first national park–Yellowstone. Grant himself remained popular with the public after leaving the presidency; his memoir of the Civil War, completed just days before his death in 1885, was a huge seller and is still regarded as one of the best such books written about the war.
Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant and was the elected the 19th President in 1876. Hayes began his Civil War service in June of 1861 as a Major in the 23rd Ohio Infantry. Early in the war, Hayes’ regiment fought in western Virginia as part of the Kanawha Division. Hayes was wounded in the Battle of South Mountain during the Antietam Campaign. Hayes was promoted to Brigadier General and participated in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, fighting at the battles of Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. A Republican, Hayes later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Governor of Ohio. Hayes promised he would serve only one term (1877-1881), a promise he kept, declining to run again in 1880.
Hayes was followed by another Ohio Civil War veteran, James Garfield. Garfield was Colonel of the 42nd Ohio Infantry, and quickly rose to command of a brigade; he would eventually be promoted to Major General. He fought in Kentucky, at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and was Chief of Staff for Major General William Rosecrans during the Chickamauga Campaign. Garfield, a Republican, was also elected to the House of Representatives during the Civil War. The 20th President of the United States was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged office seeker, at a Washington train station on July 2nd, 1881. Among those witnessing the shooting was Robert Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln. Garfield lingered until September 19th. His presidency lasted just 6 1/2 months.
Garfield was succeeded by his vice president, Chester A. Arthur. Arthur served as quartermaster general of the state of New York during the war with the rank of Brigadier
General. He served as an administrator, supplying and equipping the state’s troops and did not see action in battle. Arthur, the 21st president, was not renominated and retired after expiration of this term in 1885. Grover Cleveland was elected the 22nd president in the 1884 election. A Democrat, Cleveland did not serve in the Civil War, paying a substitute to take his place. The practice, though controversial, was legal.
Cleveland ran for reelection in 1888 but lost to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Harrison, the 23rd President, was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the 9th President. Harrison served as Colonel of the 70th Indiana Infantry in the Civil War. From its organization in August of 1862 until the spring of 1864, the 70th served mostly in guard and picket duty in Tennessee, but in May of 1864, that changed as the regiment participated in the Atlanta Campaign. Harrison distinguished himself leading his men at the Battle of Resaca on May 13th-15th. He also commanded a brigade at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. After the war, Harrison served as a U.S. Senator from
Indiana from 1881-1887. Running for a second term in 1892, Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland, whom he had defeated in the 1888 election. Cleveland is the only U.S. president to serve two non consecutive terms.
The Democrats did not nominate Cleveland for a 3rd term in 1896, and picked William Jennings Bryant as their nominee. The Republicans nominated former Ohio governor William McKinley
who won the election and became the 25th President. As an 18 year old, McKinley had enlisted as a private in the 23rd Ohio Infantry in 1861–the same unit that Rutherford B. Hayes belonged to. He was promoted to commissary sergeant in 1862, and delivered food to the regiment under heavy fire at the Battle of Antietam. A large monument near the Burnside Bridge is dedicated to that event. McKinley also fought in the Shenandoah
Valley Campaign in 1864. He attained the rank of Captain, and was awarded the honorary rank of Brevet Major. A popular president, McKinley was reelected in 190o, again defeating William Jennings Bryant, but he would serve only a few months of his second term. While attending the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6th, 1901. He died in Buffalo on September 14th.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley. McKinley was the last President who had served in the Union Army in the Civil War, and as the 20th century dawned, no more Civil War veterans were candidates for the office.