- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

“Touched by Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them”

by James M. Perry

Perseus Books

352 pages $26

Thomas Wolfe, the novelist of the 1930s, could not relate to America’s post-Civil War presidents. He called them a succession of “gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces” that “swam together in the sea-depths of a past intangible.” Many history students would go along with Wolfe’s assessment.

Bewhiskered or not, five of the six presidents who presided immediately after the Civil War — all except Grover Cleveland — had a common bond: service in the Union Army. Ulysses S. Grant, of course, was one of its luminaries, ultimately becoming its ranking general. James A. Garfield commanded a brigade for a time, and Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison each achieved command of a division. Only William McKinley, who spent most of the war in the commissariat, held no field command. Yet such was the respect accorded those who served in the war that even as president, McKinley preferred the title “major.”

All of these soldier-politicians achieved political office with considerable help from veterans organizations, which invites one to ask: Did they deserve such support? How meritorious was their military service?

Author James M. Perry, whose earlier books include a study of Civil War newspaper correspondents, has provided in “Touched by Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them” an attractively written book in which he concludes that behind those whiskers were some brave, innovative soldiers.

Alone among the five, Grant was a West Point-trained professional.

Perry touches briefly on his exploits in the West, including the capture of Forts Henry and Donaldson in February 1862.

Noting that Grant was more than once taken by surprise, as at Belmont and Shiloh, Perry concludes that Grant “was never very good at predicting what the enemy might do to him; he was always much more interested in what he was going to do to them.”

If the author has a favorite among his fighting five, it is Rutherford B. Hayes.

Early in the war, Hayes demonstrated a flair for leading volunteer soldiers, and such was his bravery that he was wounded three times. Considering Hayes’ colorless image as a politician, the reader marvels at the young colonel who, in the Antietam campaign, led his regiment into battle shouting, “Give the sons of bitches hell!”

When Hayes’ wife wrote of “brutal rebels,” the future president put the war in some perspective.

There are plenty of brutal rebels, he wrote back, “but we have brutal officers and men too,” and there are plenty of “humane rebels.” War is a cruel business, he concluded, but brutality and kindness were to be found on both sides.

The author is less kindly disposed toward James A. Garfield, another volunteer soldier from Ohio, who, in Mr. Perry’s opinion, viewed military service primarily as a step toward a political career. He gives Garfield high marks for his brief period as an independent commander in West Virginia but is properly critical of letters from Garfield to correspondents in Washington in which he criticized his commander, Gen. William S. Rosecrans, and gave encouragement to those who sought his removal.

Mr. Perry concludes that Garfield’s military record was “a formidable one” but that what burned brightest was “his passion for success as a politician.”

Of the future presidents here considered, all except one were from Ohio. This is no coincidence, for Ohio was a key state in the politics of the Gilded Age.

The fact that Benjamin Harrison came from a “Copperhead” state — Indiana — posed special problems for him during the war.

Many soldiers in his regiment were subject to letters from home arguing that the war was unjust and that Lincoln was turning a war for the Union into an anti-slavery crusade.

Far more than his Ohio peers, Harrison had to deal with a high rate of desertion. Yet he led his regiment successfully in Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Of all the postwar presidents, Harrison was most deserving of Thomas Wolfe’s dismissive description.

Cool and austere in his personal relationships, he gained the respect but rarely the affection of his men.

Still, not even Harrison was immune from the bonds of wartime camaraderie. “I would not like to leave my Regt.” he wrote his wife. “I have got to love them for their bravery and for dangers we have shared together.”

In their postwar political careers, the five former soldiers sought zealously — often tastelessly — to mobilize the veterans’ vote on behalf of the Republican Party.

Yet Mr. Perry’s fine book makes clear that the five had in fact been “touched with fire” in their Civil War years and that they truly identified with the veterans whose votes they sought.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of numerous books on the19th century, including “Garfield of Ohio: The Available Man.”

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