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Murder of a President | Clip

Committed to the Cause

James Garfield joined the Union Army in 1861, shortly after the start of hostilities. When he came face to face with slavery during his time fighting in the south, Garfield's belief in the cause of abolition and freedom was strengthened. "This is my hope," he wrote, "that when we shall return to civil life, there shall go up an unrelenting cry for freedom."


Narrator: James joined the Union Army in 1861, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. With little training and no experience, he headed up a small regiment sent to clear the Confederates out of Eastern Kentucky. At the Battle of Middle Creek Garfield led his men to an audacious victory. The triumph brought him a flash of fame.

What stayed with Garfield, however, was the memory of stepping into a clearing after the battle, and seeing what he thought were sleeping soldiers. His heart froze when he realized that the young men were dead. At that moment, Garfield would later recall, something went out of him that never came back -- "the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it." Within weeks, he was leading his men through northern Alabama. There, for the first time, he came face to face with slavery.

Heather Cox Richardson, Historian: It's important to try and get your head into what it looked like for these soldiers to go down and see men and women and children literally imprisoned on these plantations. And Garfield had an incredibly visceral reaction.

James Garfield (Shuler Hensley, audio): My Dear Lucretia: For two days we've passed splendid plantations, where slaves toil on in the fields and dare hardly look up at us. We reached this place early this morning. A whole drove of slaves came to the road and shouted for joy, saying, "Take us with you, we will work, we will do anything for you." Slavery may have great charms for the rich, but no one can fail to see that it is the poor man's bane.

Kenneth D. Ackerman, Writer: Garfield became a true believer in abolition, and in securing the rights of freed slaves. He put his life on the line in the Civil War, he fought in a number of battles including some very tough ones. And he was committed to the cause.

James Garfield (Shuler Hensley, audio): This is my hope, that when we shall return to civil life, there shall go up an unrelenting cry for freedom. If this shall ever be realized, the thousands who have fallen on the bloody field, or in the fever wards of the hospitals, will not have died in vain.

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