Chester A. Arthur & The Civil War

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Civil War impacted nearly every American, and future presidents were no exception. In this lesson, we'll look at Chester Arthur's experiences in the Civil War and see how they influenced his political career.

Chester A. Arthur

The Civil War impacted the lives of nearly every American citizen. This may sound like a somewhat obvious statement, but the war's impact on people in the late nineteenth century is not often discussed. People in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s hadn't forgotten their Civil War experiences, not even the presidents of the United States.

In 1881, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States, following the assassination of President James Garfield. By the 1880s, Arthur was well entrenched in federal politics, but that wasn't always the case. As a younger man in the 1860s, Arthur felt the impacts of the Civil War; it was the catalyst that would launch his political career.

President Chester A. Arthur
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Chester Arthur in 1861

In 1861, several seceding Southern states formally organized themselves into the Confederate States of America. War seemed inevitable (and would soon arrive). So, where was Chester Arthur? Still in his early 30s, ''Chet'' had spent the last decade fighting for some of the earliest civil rights cases in American history as a lawyer in New York. In fact, he helped get New York streetcars desegregated all the way back in the 1850s.

In 1860, the governor of New York appointed Chester Arthur the engineer-in-chief of the state, a military position. So, he was already in a military leadership role when the Civil War formally broke out in 1861. One of Arthur's first jobs was to oversee the rebuilding of the New York Harbor, making it more defensible and better equipped. The fortifications hadn't been updated since the 1840s (when a captain named Robert E. Lee was in charge of them), so this was a big job.

Chester Arthur in 1859
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Quartermaster Arthur

Arthur took the post enthusiastically, but he didn't know much about engineering. What he was good at was organizing and planning and working with intricate details. The governor thought Arthur's talents could be put to better use, and named him assistant quartermaster general of New York, granting him the rank of brigadier general. The promotion put Arthur in charge of all the resources needed to keep New York's troops functioning. This meant financing, assembling, organizing, and distributing the food, clothing, shelter, and equipment for over 200,000 soldiers stationed in the state. That's a big job.

Chester Arthur, however, was in his element. Working tirelessly, he constructed a massive tent city in Manhattan used to organize and supply recruits to the Union Army. In 1862, he was appointed inspector general, which briefly took him to the battlefield. He never saw combat in any form, however, and was quickly summoned back to the city. Nobody could handle the massive job he had left behind as well as he did, and Arthur was promoted again to quartermaster general of New York, giving him full authority over military provisioning. For the rest of the year, Arthur worked without rest, gaining the admiration of many.

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