From the mid-1800s until his death in the early 20th century, Mills Gardner was one of Fayette County’s most illustrious citizens. Born in Russellville, Ohio (Brown County) in 1830, he moved to Fayette County from Highland County in 1854 and was admitted to the bar in 1855.
Gardner began practicing law in Washington C. H. and served as Fayette County prosecuting attorney from 1856 to 1860. From his second-floor office at the corner of Court and Main streets, he practiced law in Washington C. H. for more than half a century. Regarded by his peers as one of the most brilliant lawyers in southern Ohio, he was nearly invincible in jury trials.
Mills Gardner was elected as a delegate in 1855 to the State convention of the newly formed Republican Party that nominated Salmon P. Chase for governor of Ohio. So began his more than 50 years of service to the Republican Party at the local, state, and national levels.
In 1862 and 1863, Gardner served in the Ohio Senate where, during the Civil War, he was an outspoken champion of President Abraham Lincoln and preservation of the Union. He was also Fayette County’s representative to the Ohio General Assembly in 1866 and 1867.
While a State senator, Gardner delivered in April 1863 what many of his contemporaries considered the most eloquent speech made in the Ohio legislature during the entire Civil War. He titled his speech simply, “The War and the Union.” For three hours, the 33-year-old Gardner explained with sound logic, clarity, and passion, the causes of the war, the Republican Party’s mission of preserving the United States, and his own bright vision of America’s future once the war had ceased. Until the war ended in April 1865, he gave variants of the speech throughout Ohio to rally support for Lincoln and the Northern cause.
In 1864, the Republican Party convention of Ohio’s 6th Congressional District, which included Fayette County, named Gardner the district’s presidential elector. He thus had the honor of casting one of Ohio’s 21 electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln after Lincoln’s reelection to the presidency in November 1864.
In July 1876, the Republican convention of Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District nominated Gardner as its candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives at the general election held in October 1876. He won the election and served in the Forty-fifth Congress from March 1877 to March 1879. As congressman for the 3rd District, Gardner represented Fayette, Clinton, Warren, Butler, and Clermont counties.
Congressmen in the 19th century were assigned desks in the House chamber, and Gardner’s desk was between the desks of Ohio Representatives James A. Garfield and William McKinley. The three men became close friends. Garfield and McKinley were both elected Presidents of the United States, and both men were assassinated while serving in the nation’s highest elective office (Garfield in 1881 and McKinley in 1901).
Gardner was not renominated as the Republican candidate for 3rd District congressman in 1878, mainly because he had voted with House Democrats to prevent the redemption of Civil War paper money with gold specie. Gardner voted his conscience and against his party, believing that redeeming paper money with gold would contract the nation’s money supply too rapidly to the detriment of the farmers, merchants, and laborers he represented. He resumed the practice of law in Washington Court House.
In the first decade of the last century, Gardner led the minority faction of local Republicans who opposed control of Fayette County’s Republican Party by its absentee wirepuller, Harry M. Daugherty, the Washington C. H. native who lived and practiced law in Columbus and who later became Attorney General of the United States (1921-1924).
Kind, unassuming, and fair to all, Mills Gardner was a true practitioner of the Golden Rule. He was a devout member and leader of the Grace Methodist Church. In 1875, he helped David Rodgers arrange purchase of the former Catholic Church on North Main Street as home for the city’s African Methodist Episcopal congregation.
Gardner lived in a large Victorian house on Circle Avenue, built during the Civil War on the site of the present-day Grace United Methodist Church parsonage. The two-story brick home was demolished in 1964.
Mills Gardner died on Feb. 20, 1910 at the age of 80. He is buried in the Washington Cemetery with his wife Margaret and 10 children of whom only two daughters, Gertrude and Edith, lived to adulthood.