They were some of the most dramatic weeks in U.S. history. Just months after taking office in 1881, the 20th president of the United States was shot. His doctors worked to save him. But after lingering for 79 days, James Garfield succumbed to his wounds. For the first time in the decades following the tumultuous Civil War, the country was brought together in shared grief.
Though a well-known story, it is the kind of crisis that remains ripe for a crisp, concise and revealing history, and Candice Millard delivers just that in “Destiny of the Republic,” a narrative of the assassination and its aftermath.
Millard, who wrote the best-selling “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” begins her latest work by tracing the journeys of two men who collided with deadly consequences in a Washington train station on July 2, 1881. She establishes Garfield as a character destined for greatness while weaving in the story of his eventual assassin, Charles Guiteau, an unhinged office-seeker who believed that killing the president would allow him to obtain a consulship to France. It takes some time for Millard to reach the shooting scene, perhaps because she must work so hard to paint Garfield, a mostly forgotten leader, as someone worthy of a contemporary history.
Her book picks up velocity as she describes how Guiteau finally tracked down Garfield in a Washington, D.C., train station as the president was about to board a train for Massachusetts. The assassin fired twice, hitting Garfield both times. Though the wounds were not immediately fatal, Garfield’s fate was sealed in just a matter of minutes when a doctor began probing one of his wounds with a dirty finger, “almost certainly introducing an infection,” Millard writes, “that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet.”
The president died from that infection — likely worsened by his doctors’ constant probing of his wounds with unsanitary instruments. Like many other physicians of the era, Garfield’s surgeons had ignored the warnings from researchers who believed that sterilization could prevent many deaths.
Millard makes a convincing case that Garfield may have achieved greatness if he hadn’t been gunned down, and his death helped unify a country still struggling to put aside its lingering differences in the wake of the Civil War. His term lasted only 199 days, so Garfield didn’t leave much of a legacy, and his brief presidency explains why he has almost footnote status in many history texts. As the New York Times noted shortly after his death, “No man retains a lofty place in human record by virtue of what he is believed to be capable of or of what he might have done.”
The story has few obvious heroes: The president died too young. His less-than-inspiring vice president, Chester A. Arthur, took over and did not get a full-term of his own. Garfield’s doctors proved to be incompetent. Guiteau, though deranged, was a villain and hanged for his crimes.
And this is where I found the one flaw in an otherwise taut book.Lacking a hero at the center of the narrative, Millard conjures one up in Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. In Millard’s telling, Bell feverishly raced to invent a device (a metal detector, in essence) that could find the bullet in the president’s body, but the contraption ultimately came up short.
There’s a problem with this story line, however. As Millard acknowledges, the invention would not have saved the president’s life even if it had been successful. Garfield was already slowly dying of an infection for which there was no cure. Rather than focusing on Bell, a digresssion in this presidential drama, Millard would have served readers better by beefing up her rather thin explanation of how the government functioned with an incapacitated president. This was more than 80 years before the country ratified the 25th amendment (1967), which spells out how the nation’s leaders can temporarily transfer power to the vice president in such situations.
Even so, Millard has crafted a fresh narrative that plumbs some of the most dramatic days in U.S. presidential history.
DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC
: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
By Candice Millard
Doubleday. 339 pp. $28.95