William McKinley during the Civil War

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

William McKinley was a crucial figure in American history. However, his presidency was largely shaped by earlier experiences, including his role in the Civil War. In this lesson, we'll explore that history and see how war shaped the future president.

William McKinley

William McKinley was President of the United States from 1897 to 1901. Fun fact about McKinley, though, he was born before he was elected president. Neat, right?

President William McKinley
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All too often, we talk about presidents' time in office as if it encompassed their entire lives, while ignoring everything it took to get them there. McKinley was over 50 years old when he was elected to the presidency. Before that, numerous events already shaped his life. Some were relatively minor (he enjoyed fishing as a child), while others were a little more dramatic (like the crumbling of the American republic). When the Civil War broke out in 1861, William McKinley's life would be changed forever.

The War Begins

In April of 1861, the Confederate Army attacked, and the American Civil War began. Young men from across the country signed up to fight on either side. One such young man was 18-year old William McKinley. In June, he entered into Company E of the 23rd Ohio Infantry in the Union Army. From the start, McKinley's experience was about as archetypical as we could find. He was barely old enough to fight, but enlisted in an infantry unit as a private. It was these sorts of men who endured the most grueling battles of the bloody war.

William McKinley at roughly age 15, a few years before the war
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In September, McKinley saw his first action at the Battle of Carnifax Ferry. While not the largest battle in the Civil War, the Union victory resulted in the Confederates being driven from West Virginia. For McKinley, however, it was significant in another way. His courage and leadership caught the attention of his superiors, including a man named Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes quickly became an extremely important friend and mentor for young McKinley.

The War Escalates

McKinley was promoted to the rank of commissary sergeant in 1862, putting him in charge of the regiment's supplies, and then the unit was called to Maryland. That September, they joined up with other Union forces along the Antietam Creek, in pursuit of the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee. The two armies finally collided on September 17th. By the end of the day, nearly 23,000 soldiers had been killed. The Battle of Antietam was the deadliest single-day battle in all of American history.

The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in American history
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So where was William McKinley during this horrible encounter? Distinguishing himself. With his regiment pinned down, McKinley took the initiative to run back to their supply tents, load up a wagon with enough cooked food to revitalize the beleaguered soldiers, and drive the wagon back through the battlefield under heavy fire. For his bravery and cool-headed leadership, McKinley was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

The Impact of the War

In 1865, the war ended and William McKinley, having served through almost the entire thing, was honorably discharged from service. By this point, he held the rank of brevet major and was highly respected by numerous leaders in the Union Army (including Hayes). McKinley went on to attend law school and soon became involved with the Republican Party. Thanks to his numerous high-ranking connections from the Union Army, he quickly found a secure place in politics. Of course, it doesn't hurt when your mentor is elected President of the United States.

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