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Profile - Benjamin Harrison, Soldier-President

Like many of his ancestors, Benjamin Harrison (1833-1904)  took up soldiering when the necessity arose, and, like his grandfather, eventually attained the presidency.

Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison.  His earliest ancestor in America was Benjamin Harrison, who arrived in Virginia in 1630, becoming a wealthy planter and member of the House of Burgesses.  Patriarch Benjamin’s son, Benjamin II, managed the family estates and also served several terms in the House of Burgesses.  The latter’s son, naturally Benjamin III, was a colonel in the Virginia militia, but died young, at 27 in 1710 (two years before his father). Benjamin III left a son, Benjamin IV, who became a planter, a colonial political leader and the father of Benjamin V.  Benjamin V was a member of the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an officer in the Virginia militia, governor of the state, and (not unimportantly) father of William Henry Harrison, his third son and youngest child.  William Henry’s second child, John Scott Harrison, who served as a Member of Congress from Ohio, was the father of Benjamin Harrison VIII, the future 23rd President.

Benjamin VIII attended Miami University in Ohio, then read law in Cincinnati, and began practicing in Indianapolis in the mid-1850s while becoming active in the Republican Party.  By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Harrison was secretary of the Republican state committee and had been elected Reporter to the Supreme Court of Indiana.

In mid-1862, with the Civil War already underway for over a year, Harrison joined the newly forming 70th Indiana Volunteers and was mustered into federal service as a second lieutenant on July 14, 1862.  Little more than three weeks later, on August 7th, he was elected colonel of the regiment.  A firm taskmaster and never a popular commander, Harrison and his men quickly became proficient at their craft.  For most of the next 18 months, the 70th Indiana performed security duties in Kentucky and Tennessee, protecting railroads and other important installations.  This was monotonous duty, as the regiment only engaged Confederate troops in a couple of brief skirmishes with raiding parties.  This boring routine changed in February of 1864, when the regiment was incorporated in the Army of the Cumberland.  Thereafter, the 70th Indiana saw considerable action during Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, fighting in over a dozen battles by the fall of Atlanta in September.  By the end of the campaign, however, Harrison and his regiment had parted company.  Although still a colonel, Harrison was given command of a brigade and never returned to the regiment.  While the 70th Indiana took part in Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” Harrison and his brigade went in another direction, being ordered into Tennessee, where they took part in the Battle of Nashville in December of 1864.  A few weeks later, on January 23, 1865, Harrison was made a brevet brigadier general.   He was mustered out of the service on June 8, 1865 and again served as Recorder of the Indiana State Supreme Court, a post to which he had been reelected to while still in the army.

During the postwar years Harrison returned to the practice of law, becoming a successful prosecutor while remaining active in the Republican Party.  In 1868, he won national attention by securing the conviction of Nancy Clem and two accomplices for one of the most gruesome murders of the day.  He was not particularly successful as an office seeker, twice failing in runs for governor of Ohio, and served only one term in the Senate after an earlier unsuccessful bid for the seat.   Nevertheless, in 1888, as a result of a very confused Republican presidential nominating convention, he emerged as the party’s standard bearer.  Although Harrison lost the popular vote to incumbent Grover Cleveland by several percentage points, he won the electoral vote and was inaugurated in March of 1889. 

Harrison’s presidency was concerned primarily with domestic matters, such as civil service reform, veterans’ pensions, the tariff, the question of “Free Silver,” and the beginnings of anti-trust legislation.  There were only two major foreign policy problems during his years in office.  In 1891 a diplomatic crisis erupted with Chile over an incident between American sailors and local citizens in Valparaiso, which might have resulted in war, but was settled by negotiations, in part because the Chilean Navy was considerably more modern than the U.S. Navy.  Early in 1893, a coup by American businessmen in Hawaii ousted the monarchy to install a republic, with the goal of swift annexation by the United States, a proposition that Harrison rejected.

Militarily, Harrison’s term saw the last tragic acts of the Indian Wars, the “Ghost Dance” movement of 1890, culminating in Wounded Knee (December 29, 1890), an incident marked by such gross ineptitude on the part of the Army commander present that the Commanding General attempted to court martial the man, which was quashed by political forces.  The end of the Indian Wars initiated major changes in the Army, as redundant posts began to be closed, newer equipment adopted, and more attention paid to conventional warfare.

Meanwhile, by the time Harrison entered the White House, the “New Navy” was beginning to take shape.  During his term, enthusiasm for a larger navy was spurred by the publication in 1890 of Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 and the 1891 crisis with Chile.  Ships authorized during the early 1880s began entering service to form the “Squadron of Evolution”, which permitted maneuvers with modern vessels and, not incidentally, provided excellent publicity for the expansion of the fleet and showed the flag in Europe and Latin America.  Meanwhile, ships ordered during the first Cleveland administration were under construction, and Congress authorized four new first class battleships, several new cruisers (including the famed Olympia) and other vessels.

Harrison ran for re-election in1892, but was defeated by his predecessor Grover Cleveland.  Leaving the White House, he returned to the law, at which he was quite good, taking on numerous important cases, including a very complex case involving Venezuela’s international debt.  A highly regarded legal scholar, Harrison was appointed in 1899 by President McKinley as one of the American representatives to an international conference on the problem of war to be held in the Netherlands.  Harrison played an active role in helping to frame the “Hague Convention,” the first major set of international agreements on the law of war. 

Benjamin’s son Russell served as a volunteer in the Spanish-American War, rose to lieutenant colonel and was for a time provost marshal of Puerto Rico.  The president’s grandson Benjamin Harrison Walker served in the Army Air Forces during World War II.  During Harrison’s administration, one of his nephews served as a corporal in Company K, 1st Cavalry.

BookNotes:  Never one of the most notable presidents, Benjamin Harrison has largely been overlooked by biographers. The only recent treatment is Charles W. Calhoun’s  Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 (American Presidents (Times))   

 


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