Rutherford Hayes' "Golden Years"

The Civil War was America’s defining moment. But with its massive death and destruction, the conflict was for many a tragedy never to be forgotten. However, Rutherford B. Hayes referred to the Civil War as his “golden years.” When President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers, Hayes quickly joined a company of home guards composed of his fellow members of the Cincinnati Literary Club. He later offered his services to Governor William Dennison, who appointed him major in the newly-formed Twenty-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry regiment.

The 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was organized at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. The regiment was mustered into service on June 11, 1861, as a three-year regiment. Colonel William Rosecrans was the first commander of the 23rd. The regiment departed for western Virginia, where it helped restore that portion of Virginia to the Union.

Eliakim P. Scammon succeeded Rosecrans as commander. The third commander of the Twenty-Third was Rutherford B. Hayes, who, after the war, served as a United States Congressman, Governor of Ohio, and President of the United States. Also serving in this regiment was Private William McKinley, America’s 25th President; and future Supreme Court Judge Stanley Mathews. Following the war, 23rd Ohio comrade James M. Comly became the American minister to Hawaii.

Hayes spent the first months of the Civil War at Camp Chase outside Columbus, Ohio, attending to routine military matters. Because of his legal training and reputation, he served for a time in the capacity of judge advocate general on the field headquarters staff of General William Rosecrans in Virginia. Upon his promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel in October 1861, Hayes became second in command of the regiment. He soon assumed de facto command of the 23rd and, within a year, became its colonel. Two years later, on October 19, 1864, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers for gallantry and distinguished service in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. On March 13, 1865, Hayes was brevetted major general of volunteers. Although Hayes never participated in a battle as a general, he gained distinction and the confidence of his men as one of the “good colonels” and regimental commanders.

The regiment was attached to the Kanawha Brigade of Jacob D. Cox. Hayes first saw combat in August 1861 at Carnifax Ferry. In September 1862, during the Antietam campaign, Hayes played an important role in the Union victory at South Mountain.  During the battle, Hayes was wounded in an attack on the slopes near Fox's Gap. Both he and his regiment won the praise of the superior officers for their gallant actions under extremely heavy enemy fire. The following week, the 23rd Ohio fought at Antietam in the fields southeast of Sharpsburg, Maryland.

The next year Hayes participated in the pursuit of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders in Ohio. During General Philip Sheridan’s 1864 campaign, Hayes and the 23rd saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war.  After participating in the earlier engagements of Cloyd’s Mountain, New River Bridge, and Lexington, Hayes and his men fought successive battles in the Shenandoah Valley at Lynchburg, Winchester, Berryville, Opequan, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek. During the last engagement, he helped rally the federal troops and saved the day for General Philip Sheridan. While in the valley, Hayes acquired a deep admiration for General George Crook, the commander of the Army of West Virginia.

Even though he had several horses shot out from beneath him and was wounded four times, the wartime experiences helped improve his health. The injury to his left arm proved annoying in later life, but it was not incapacitating. The war helped shape his views toward the South by making him aware of the immense task of reconstructing and restoring the defeated section of the nation. While in the army, he formed many lasting friendships and associations, where he developed a deep respect and love for his fellow comrades. These attitudes proved useful in postwar political contests, for Hayes could legitimately claim support as the “soldier’s friend.” Lucy Hayes, in seeing to the needs of the sick and wounded during her many camp visits, also won the admiration of the troops. In later years, she and Hayes enjoyed attending veteran reunions.

In October 1864, the citizens of the Second Congressional District in Cincinnati rewarded Hayes for his meritorious and gallant service by electing him to Congress.  The nomination resulted from the efforts of William Henry Smith, who later helped Hayes secure other nominations. Even though serving in the United States Congress was one of his ambitions, Hayes refused to leave active military duty to campaign for his election. He professed that “An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.”