Rutherford B. Hayes's Presidency

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Was Rutherford B. Hayes a war hero?

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Rutherford B. Hayes became the 19th president of the United States in the closest election in history. Hayes did not expect to be elected, as vote totals and where the remaining votes to be counted appeared to favor his rival, Samuel Tilden. Because the popular vote total was so close and because there were contested ballots in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, the election was thrown into Congress. Congress appointed an Electoral Commission to determine the final count. Eight Republicans and Seven Democrats voted along party lines to award the Electoral College votes to Hayes securing the victory by one Electoral College vote, 185 to 184. Tilden won the popular vote, and the election is one of only a few presidential elections where the winner of the popular vote did not secure enough Electoral College votes to become president of the United States.

Hayes was known as a man of impeccable character, honesty, and integrity. He was considered a Civil War hero on two accounts. While serving in the Union Army, Hayes was wounded several times in different battles against the Confederates. Unlike many Union military officers, Hayes usually fought with his men in the thick of the action rather than remain in rear guard, shielded from gunfire. Hayes was wounded on at least four reported incidents but continued to lead his men despite the wounds.

The second reason Rutherford B. Hayes was a hero is that when allowed to leave the battlefield and return to his home, Hayes declined. While in the thick of battle, Hayes was nominated to serve in the House of Representatives. Nomination to the House guaranteed an honorable discharge and a return to the safety of his home far from the war. Hayes accepted the nomination, but true to his character, did not return home to campaign. He remained with his troops until the Civil War ended. Hayes is reported to have said, "An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped." True to form, Hayes conducted his election campaign by writing letters and personal notes to voters asking for their support. Hayes overwhelmingly defeated the incumbent Democrat and began his term in office from the battlefield.

It is accurate to say Rutherford Hayes was a Civil War hero based on the way he conducted himself during the war and from the commendations he received by his superior officers including General Grant. Hayes can be thought of as a hero for not choosing to abandon his men for a safer and more secure position in the House. In both instances, Rutherford Hayes demonstrates the characteristics that define war-heroism.

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