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Profile - Chester A. Arthur, Militiaman, President

Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) had one of the most unusual military careers of anyone who eventually attained the White House, serving in a variety of administrative posts as a senior militia officer during the Civil War, but never actually taking part in operations

The President’s father, John Arthur, of “Scots-Irish” descent, migrated to Canada from Ireland in the early 1800s.  There he met and married Arthur’s mother, a visiting American, and around 1818 they settled in Vermont, which was Mrs. Arthur’s home state; Thus, after Jackson and Buchanan, Arthur was the third son of an immigrant to become president. 

On his mother’s side, the President’s ancestry was English, with, tradition has it, a trace of American Indian.  His maternal great-grandfather, Uriah Stone, of New Hampshire, fought in the Revolutionary War. 

Arthur’s early education was at the hands of his father, a minister.  Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Union College, New York, he taught for a time while studying law.  In the mid-1850s Arthur began to practice law in New York City, and became one of the first “civil rights” attorneys, winning the earliest public accommodations case in history, when he secured the desegregation of New York City street cars.  Young Arthur also became active in the new Republican Party.  In February 1858 he joined the New York State Militia and was appointed a major and brigade Judge Advocate.  In January 1861 he was appointed a brigadier general and Engineer-in-Chief of the State Militia. 

On the outbreak of the Civil War, in April of 1861, Arthur was appointed Assistant Quartermaster General of the New York State Militia, responsible for arming and equipping newly raised regiments.  During the first ten weeks of the war (c. April 15-June 30) he was responsible for organizing the supply of uniforms, arms, and equipment that permitted 38 regiments to reach the front, while additional regiments were raised for local defense.  By the end of 1861 Arthur had been instrumental in dispatching some 80 regiments to the field.  In February of 1862 Arthur was made Inspector General of the New York State Militia, in which capacity he visited New York units in the field during the Peninsular Campaign.  A few months later, in  July, he was made Quartermaster General of the New York Militia, which was shortly renamed the New York National Guard – adopting the name long used by New York’s famous 7th Regiment.  Holding rank as a brigadier general, Arthur remained in this post until the end of the war.   In the course of the war New York dispatched over 500,000 men to the armies and maintained a militia of about 30,000 men for home defense.  During the war, many of these New York militiamen actually took the field for periods as long as three months at a stretch, notably during the summers of 1862 and 1863, and in the Spring of 1864.  All of these troops were clothed, armed, and equipped largely through Arthur’s efforts.

According to New York Governor Edwin Morgan, Arthur " . . . was my chief reliance in the duties of equipping and transporting troops and munitions of war.  In the position of Quartermaster General, he displayed not only great executive ability and unbending integrity, but great knowledge of Army Regulations.  He can say 'No' (which is important) without giving offense."

After the Civil War Arthur, who liked to be called “general”, resigned from the militia and became increasingly active in Republican politics.  Elected vice-president in 1880, he became president on the death of James A. Garfield on September 20, 1881.  At the time, some of Arthur’s political enemies charged that he was not a “natural born” citizen, claiming that he had been born in Ireland or in Canada, both outright fabrications. 

Militarily, Arthur’s presidency was rather quiet.  The sporadic war with the Apache in Arizona and New Mexico came to temporary end in 1883, when Brig. Gen. George Crook negotiated a settlement with the great war chief Geronimo, which lasted until after Arthur left office.  But if there was little action, there was also considerable progress, particularly for the Navy.  After years of neglect, on Mar 3, 1883 Congress passed a bill to revitalize the Navy, ordering four steel warships, initiating what would come to be known as “the New Navy", which was followed on October 6, 1884, with the opening of the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest institution of naval higher education in the world

Arthur was not nominated for a second term.  He died abut 18 months after leaving office.

Arthur’s wife, Ellen Lewis, of Herndon, Virginia, had strong Confederate ties, and a number of her relatives were killed or taken prisoner during the Civil War.

Arthur’s brother William served as a major during the Civil War, and was for a time acting commander of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, in which capacity he was wounded in action at Ream’s Station, Virginia, August 25, 1864.  William’s son, William Arthur, Jr., served as an officer in the Regular Army during the 1880s.

President Arthur had two sons, neither of whom served.

BookNotes:  Though none spend much time on his military career, there are several good recent biographies of President Arthur, notably Chester Alan Arthur, by Zachary Karabell, and Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President by Gregory J. Dehler

 


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