James Garfield, a student of classic warfare, visualized himself as a chief of staff under the European definition. That meant he took more of a hands-on approach to his job than his predecessor, Col. Julius P. Garesch, who was more of a priest than a warrior. As it settled into Murfreesboro, the Federal Army of the Cumberland needed patching up.
The army suffered heavy losses and the loss of several brigade commanders. Garfield saw fit to supervise the training and rebuilding of the army, often dealing directly with top brass in Washington. And once the Army’s commanding general, William S. Rosecrans, began to trust him, Garfield filled what had been one of Garesch’s primary roles: debating literature and religion late into the night after the day’s work was done. Both men were from Ohio. Rosecrans was an ardent Catholic and Garfield was a Disciples of Christ minister. Also known as the Christian Church, the Disciples of Christ had its beginnings on the American frontier in the early 1800s. Key voices in the development included Barton Stone, Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell. The younger Campbell won national acclaim in 1837, when he engaged the Roman Catholic John B. Purcell, archbishop of Cincinnati, in a widely publicized eight-day debate on the traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church. Once Garfield established headquarters in Murfreesboro, he discovered East Main Church of Christ near the home he had commandeered.
In 1985, local historian C.B. Arnette researched Garfield’s involvement in the Murfreesboro church. “The church had just been completed in 1859. Formerly, in 1833, its members had built a church on Lytle’s Creek at a point about where Cap’n D’s is located. A young man whose name was Tolbert Fanning was asked to preach the first sermon. Born in 1810 in Cannon County, he was only 23 years of age when he preached the first sermon of this new church on Jan. 1, 1833,” Arnette wrote. “Tolbert Fanning went on to become one of the greatest gospel preachers in the brotherhood . Consequently, 26 years later he was asked to preach the first sermon in this new house of worship at the corner of East Main and Academy Streets.
On its completion, it was thought to be the most beautiful and largest church building in Murfreesboro. With its tall steeple, it was an imposing architecture,” he said. Garfield’s headquarters was in the Wendel family house at the corner of East College and Spring Streets. It was incorrectly reported last week the house was on East Main. “It was a plain and simple Federal house with two stories. One of the first brick houses built in Murfreesboro. It was built right up against the sidewalks of both East College and Spring Streets,” Arnette said. Three years later, East Main Church of Christ was to be used as a military hospital following the Battle of Stones River. Somewhat later, the church was returned to its intended use and while stationed here, Garfield preached several sermons and served at the Communion table, Arnette said. “We had an eyewitness of the man and his service in the person of Mrs. Ben Johnson who related her observation and her interest in the general. Only five years of age at the time, she related to Dr. George W. Dehoff, minister at the time her memories in 1945. “As a child, she was sitting on the Lord’s Day with other children in the pew behind that occupied by Gen. Garfield. She reminisced that when he arose to preach or preside at the Lord’s Table, he would remove his saber and his side arms, leaving them in the pew,” he said. Garfield didn’t forget his days in Murfreesboro and would often refer to it during speechmaking in Congress. “After Gen. Garfield became President of the United States he sent a heavily embossed pewter communion set to the congregation. It consisted of an 18 inch high pewter wine container and two wine goblets to the East Main congregation,” the local historian said. Arnette said Garfield’s gift brought an interesting response. “There were certain of the ‘unregenerated’ Southern women who objected to the use of the ‘Yankee Gift.’ The tradition continues that a Civil War veteran objected by stating that all Christians can worship together. Still unappreciated, it was relegated to a black congregation who used it for several years. Later, it was acquired by Bro. A.N. Miller who subsequently gave it to the East Main Street Church of Christ.” Perhaps word of some of Garfield’s speeches in Congress had filtered back South once he left the army to serve in Congress. He used Murfreesboro as an example of the disloyal, unrepentant attitudes in the Confederacy and advocated that the government confiscate property. Addressing the House of Representatives, Garfield said: “This question of land, Mr. Speaker, is inseparably connected with the peculiar institution of the South. It is well know that the power of slavery rests in large plantations … the bulk of all the landed estates is in the hands of the slave owners who have plotted this great conspiracy. “Let me give you an instance of this, one of a thousand that might be given. In the town of Murfreesboro’, Rutherford county, Tennessee, a place made sacred and glorious forever by the valor of our army, there are fourteen thousand four hundred and ninety-three acres of land owned by sixteen persons, and three of the sixteen men own more than ten thousands of the acres. “Only a few hundred men own the bulk of the land in any Southern state, and these men hold the lands and own the slaves. These men plotted the rebellion and thrust it upon us,” Garfield said. Take the land and keep the Rebel leaders landless, he said. Their property should be divided up into homes for Union veterans. “Who owns the red field of Stones River? Two or three men own it all. And who are these two or three men? Rebels every one – one of them a man who once sat in this chamber, but who is now a leader in the ranks of the Rebel Army. Will you let him come back and repossess his land? Will you ask his permission when you go to visit the grave of your dead son who sleeps in the bosom of that sacred field?” With his fiery speechmaking, Garfield quickly became the darling of the Republican Party. How he got to Congress is yet another story.
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