Our 19th president may not be the most famous or the most decorated Civil War hero, but he certainly was one of the most durable. We can’t help but admire his resilience, courage and dedication. During his four years of service, Rutherford B. Hayes was wounded four times, once quite severely. He also had four horses shot out from under him.
Five US presidents actually served during the Civil War, although Hayes was the only one who was wounded. After the war, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote that Hayes’ conduct on the field “was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring.”
A Harvard-educated lawyer, Rutherford B. Hayes opposed slavery. When the Republican Party was formed in the 1850s to oppose expansion of slavery, Hayes became an active member where he lived in Cincinnati. He enlisted to fight with the Union in 1861 after Confederate soldiers fired on Fort Sumter. Hayes suffered his first war wound – to the knee – early on when his regiment was conducting raids against Confederates in West Virginia.
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In September of 1862, Hayes was injured much more seriously during the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland. A Lt. Colonel at the time, Hayes and his men spearheaded an attack at Fox’s Gap. His journal entries describe heavy fighting leading up to his injury:
“Just as I gave the command to charge I felt a stunning blow and found a musket ball had struck my left arm just above the elbow. Fearing that an artery might be cut, I asked a soldier near me to tie my handkerchief above the wound. I soon felt weak, faint, and sick at the stomach.” Hayes notes he laid down and was “pretty comfortable.”
His journal continues, “I was perhaps twenty feet behind the line of my men, and could form a pretty accurate notion of the way the fight was going. The enemy's fire was occasionally very heavy; balls passed near my face and hit the ground all around me. I could see wounded men staggering or carried to the rear.”
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As fighting positions changed, Hayes eventually realized he was lying between the enemy and his own soldiers. He was rescued under fire and moved to another position where he could continue to manage the assault. Following the battle, he was treated at a field hospital and billeted with a local family for several weeks while he recuperated. Then he went back to active duty. His fourth and final wound came during the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864.
Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated to run for Congress in 1864. However, the war was still raging. He refused to actively campaign, explaining in a letter, “An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.”
Later in life, Rutherford B. Hayes described his Civil War action as “the best years of our lives.” Despite being injured four times, General Hayes was not the most-often-wounded officer in the Civil War. But Hayes was one tough cookie!
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