Five Presidents — and their Civil War battles

Touched with FireDo great generals make for great presidents? From George Washington to Ike Eisenhower, our nation has often elevated military leaders to the White House. The Civil War battlefields, now being recalled upon the 150th anniversary of the war, launched several future presidents and presidential contenders.

Touched With Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them revisits the battlefield lives and political futures of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley.

Historian James Perry delves into the back stories and war stories of each of the men, while not allowing the immense figure of Grant to dominate the narrative. His trick is to tell Grant’s early up-from-the-bootstraps story, and then bring him back mainly when the other subjects interact with him throughout the war.

Opening with short pre-war biographies of the soldiers that range from humble beginnings for some (notably Grant), to being the grandson of another famous general and President (Harrison), each of them rises through their wartime experiences, well-told with judicious detail, to become military successes, then political leaders or highly placed political pawns. After the war, in the so-called Gilded Age, it was a necessity to “wave the bloody shirt,” as Perry explains, and capitalize on military experiences to win elections in that notoriously corrupt period. The brief but fascinating final chapter highlights the fickle factorial winds that determined who won the White House, and illustrates that having worn a blue uniform was a ticket to that high office.

Readers interested in the evolution of the character of these men will find this a good read, while Perry’s retelling will engage Civil War and presidential history buffs.

    ~Carl K., Central Library