NoD: President Garfield became a General in Pikeville

Pikeville, Ky.
Pikeville City Park – Pikeville, Ky.

Last week on Jeopardy!, a question in the category 19th century Presidents concerned a man who simultaneously served as a congressman from Ohio, a senator-elect, and as President-elect. But before Ohioan James A. Garfield achieved these three titles, he served in the Civil War and was appointed brigadier general while encamped in Piketon n/k/a Pikeville.

President James A. Garfield

In early January 1862, Colonel James A. Garfield led Union troops to victory at the Battle of Middle Creek in Floyd County which forced Confederates out of southeast Kentucky and secured the Big Sandy Valley for the Union. During the battle, a company of Kentucky Unionists were almost the targets of a volley from their Ohioan compatriots but Col. Garfield – realizing the impending threat – caused the Kentuckians to let out a “Hurrah for the Union” – a cheer that saved their lives.

It was the victory that prompted Garfield to receive the commission of brigadier general in January 1862. Already headquartered in Pikeville when his commission arrived, there was no senior military brass to swear-in Garfield so the task was left to a justice of the peace, squire John Charles. Garfield was sworn in at the Ratliff Tavern (pictured below, at left) where he was also headquartered. The Ratliff Tavern was torn down in the 1930s to make room for the Pikeville City Park pictured above.

The following month, Gen. Garfield and his troops experienced what Pikeville residents were all to familiar with: flooding. In a letter to his wife, Garfield wrote:

Ratliff Tavern; source info.

The house where I am staying, which is sixty feet above the usual level of the river, is now surrounded. A wild river roars around it on all sides. Two large steamboats are up in the principal street of the village. Houses, stacks of wheat and hay, gigantic trees, saw-logs, fences, and all things that float are careening by with fearful velocity.

The flood left Union troops without supplies and they were forced to re-encamp on higher ground. The flood was so mighty that it even left two steamboats in the streets of Pikeville.

Garfield would leave the military for service in Congress where he would serve several terms before supporting his friend, John Sherman (the Treasury Secretary and brother of Civil War General William T. Sherman). President Grant was pursuing a return to the White House for an unprecedented third term as President, an outcome which many opposed. On the 36th ballot, Republicans picked the ‘dark horse’ James A. Garfield as their nominee for President. Garfield would go on to defeat General Winfield Scott Hancock in November. As history would have it, the Garfield administration was short-lived as he was assassinated only months after being sworn in.

Sources: Eastern Kentucky Battles; Johnson County History