James A. Garfield on Partisanship, Treason, and the 1868 Elections

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 7.54.45 PMIn 1868, as presidential and congressional races heated up, partisans on both sides invoked the Civil War to further their (or others') political campaigns. In the Republican camp, that wasn't all that hard to do. Jefferson Davis was a Democrat, most prominent Rebels were Democrats, and yes...the man who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat too. Of course there were loyal Democrats as well - so Republicans did their best to discredit them by making the obvious association.

I recently came across this letter written by James A. Garfield in October, 1868. Garfield had served as a major general in the Union army, spent nine consecutive terms as a Republican congressional representative from Ohio, and eventually was elected (in 1880) the 20th President of the United States - where he served only 200 days before he fell to an assassins bullet.

In 1868, Garfield was trying to convince one of his former Union army comrades - prominent Democrat William S. Rosecrans -  that supporting a Democrat for the House of Representatives was a heinous mistake - perhaps as odious as supporting treason. Rosecrans had moved to California after the war and was heavily involved in land development in Los Angeles...where he also became a key Democratic Party spokesperson. The following letter is a great example of a former Union soldier "waving the bloody shirt," as it were, to make as argument.

“I cannot look upon your present political affiliations with out keen sense of regret – for it seems that the leaders of the Democratic party are so blinded by the fury of partisan feelings that they are quite ready to be led by the old secession rebel element of the south. Our good friends Gen. Schenck is fighting a desperate battle with the Democracy of the District – who are running Valandingham for Congress – I cannot for a moment suppose that were you here – you would differ with me in my purpose to so all in my power to defeat the traitor whom you and I sent through our lines – and electing his stead the Union soldier who helped save the Republic."

So those who had fought to save the Republic always had this card up their sleeve - and would play it out regularly.

One last thing - someone came after me the other day for not posting footnotes when I quote original research. I have mentioned on several occasions that I would provide my sources to anyone who asked - just send me a note. But for the record, my snarky friend...

James A. Garfield to William S. Rosecrans, Oct 7, 1868, Box 12, Folder 71, Rosecrans Papers, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

With compliments,