James A. Garfield (1831–1881) was the 20th president of the United States. His term, and life, were cut short by an assassin just a few months after he was elected.
Garfield’s mother raised him and his siblings. A self-made man, the future president studied different subjects, including law, Greek, and Latin.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Garfield joined the Union with the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln asked Garfield to leave his military job so that he could join the House of Representatives as a politician. Garfield didn’t want to work in politics, but he joined the House of Representatives the next year. He served in Congress for 18 years until 1881.
The Republican Party was new and still smarting from the Civil War. Garfield had to figure out a way to keep two groups in his party happy: the Stalwarts who didn’t want the country to change, and the Half-Breeds who wanted more change and to make friends with the South after the war. Garfield wasn’t a Stalwart or a Half-Breed.
Because of the rift between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, the party had a hard time choosing who should represent them in the next election. In a surprise move, they chose Garfield to be their presidential nominee, with Chester A. Arthur from the Half-Breed group as the vice-presidential nominee. Garfield barely won the election with around 10,000 popular votes. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1881.
On July 2, 1881, just four months after taking office, President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a lawyer who did not get the political job he wanted. He fired two shots at the president while Garfield was on the way to a Williams College reunion. As Garfield fell to the ground, the assassin yelled out, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is president now!”
Garfield did not die right away, but lay in the White House for nearly three months. Doctors couldn’t find the bullet in his back. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried to find the bullet with a metal detector he’d created, but without luck.