Perhaps the finest volunteer soldier to reach the White House, Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) seems to have served under fire on at least 50 occasions during the Civil War.
The nineteenth president’s family settled in New England in the late 1600s, but later moved to Ohio. As a child, the president’s great-grandfather David Hayes spent seven years as a prisoner among the Indians. With two of the president’s other great-grandfathers, he fought in the American Revolution, as did both presidential grandfathers, Rutherford Hayes and Roger Birchard. The President’s father, Rutherford, served as a captain in the Vermont militia during the War of 1812. Although the elder Rutherford died shortly before the President’s birth, Hayes was raised in comfortable circumstances, and attended Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846 Hayes attempted to enlist, but was rejected by reason of ill-health. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Hayes was a successful lawyer and prominent Republican in Ohio. He promptly helped raise the 23rd Ohio, in which he was commissioned a major on June 27, 1861; among the enlisted men was William McKinley.
From mid-1861 Hayes saw considerable service in western Virginia, which would ultimately secure what became West Virginia for the Union. That September he was appointed judge advocate for the Ohio Department, but the following month was promoted to lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of the 23rd Ohio. Over the following ten months Hayes saw considerable action with his regiment in many small operations in western Virginia. During the Antietam Campaign, Hayes was severely wounded in the left arm at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). Refusing to leave the field despite considerable loss of blood, he played an important part in repulsing Confederate attacks. Hayes was promoted to colonel and commander of the 23rd Ohio the following month. Early in 1863 he was given command of a brigade that was active against Confederate raiders and guerrillas in the Ohio Valley, and later command a brigade, and for a time a division, with some distinction during Sheridan's Valley Campaign in 1864. At the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864), Hayes suffered a leg injury when his horse was killed beneath him, but continued in action, for which he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers to date from October 18, 1864.
Nominated for a seat in Congress in 1864, Hayes refused to campaign, remarking “I have other business just now. Any man who would leave the army at this time to electioneer for Congress ought to be scalped.” When he was elected anyway, he refused to take his seat, saying “I shall never come to Washington until I can come by way of Richmond.”
Hayes was given a brevet – honorary – promotion to major general of volunteers on March 3, 1865. Having been through about 50 engagements during the war, Hayes resigned from the Army on June 8th. U.S. Grant, who knew something about soldiering, said that Hayes’, “conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than mere personal daring.” Among the presidents, only George Washington and Zachary Taylor saw more combat service than Hayes, and he was wounded more often than any other president, at least five times, once nearly fatally; in the course of the war four horses were killed by enemy fire while he was riding them.
The ranks of the 23rd Ohio provided the nation with a number of notable soldiers and public servants. Its first commander was William S. Rosecrans, who later led the Army of the Cumberland with considerable distinction. The regiment’s first deputy commander was Eliakim P. Scammon, later a noted diplomat. Joining the regiment as enlisted men, and later rising to become officers were James M. Comfy, later a prominent ambassador, Stanley Matthews, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court, and William McKinley, who later became president.
One of the most colorful characters to come out of the 23rd Ohio was Hayes’ orderly, Pvt. Billy Crump. Perhaps the most skilled forager in the war, Crump once returned from a 20-mile excursion having “recruited” 50 chickens, two turkeys, a goose, some two dozen eggs, and nearly 30 pounds of butter for the general’s mess, all of which were rather untidily draped about his horse.
After the war. Hayes became active in Republican politics, served in Congress, and was elected governor of Ohio three times in succession. In 1876 he ran for president on the Republican ticket. The election proved inconclusive, due to a confused vote count in Florida. Following an investigation by an special commission, it was determined that Hayes had been elected. He took office in March of 1877.
During Hayes’ administration the Army was engaged in the Nez Perce War (May-October 1877), and there were short conflicts with the Utes and Apaches in 1879, and a couple of major strikes that required military intervention. The Navy, in decline since the end of the Civil War, did engage in some exploratory expeditions, but was otherwise in the doldrums.
Like James K. Polk, Hayes had promised that he would not run for a second term, believing that there should be a one term limit for the presidency, and he kept his word. Retiring from the presidency in 1881, he remained active in veterans’ organizations, but otherwise lived quietly in Ohio until his death.
Hayes was immensely proud of his military service, once remarking “I am more gratified by friendly references to my war record than by any other flattery.”
Only one of the president’s three sons served, Webb, who soldiered in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, earning a Medal of Honor, the Boxer Rebellion, and World War I (see CIC No 241).
Six of the president’s seven grandsons served. Webb C. Hayes II (Naval Academy, 1911) served on active duty, commanding several ships until he transferred to the reserve 1928. Recalled in 1942, he served ashore for a time, but was later given command of the troop ship U.S.S. West Point, the largest in the fleet, and carried some 175,000 personnel overseas in twenty voyages. Discharged in 1946, he was later promoted to rear admiral on the reserve list. Walter Sherman Hayes left college in 1917 to accept a commission in the Navy, and served in the battleship Utah (BB-31). Four other grandsons served in the army during World War I, Scott Russell Hayes (lieutenant, 1st Field Artillery), William P. Hayes (private, 20th Engineers), Sherman Hayes (lieutenant, 14th Infantry), and Dalton Hayes Smith (sergeant, 165th Infantry– New York’s ‘Fighting 69th’).