A Story of Heroism….And Coffee

Perhaps the most prominent of the monuments around Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam is not to a regiment who fought there, or indeed any fighting at all.  It is a monument to coffee.  Well, that and future president William McKinley.

William McKinley Monument

McKinley served as a Commissary Sergeant in the 23rd Ohio Infantry.  The story goes that on September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, McKinley personally served all the members of the regiment with coffee and hot food.  He undertook this action without orders in response to the conditions of the men, who were tired, hungry, and broken down.  In doing so McKinley passed under fire.

Relief showing McKinley serving food and coffee

Two years after President McKinley was killed by an assassin, the monument was dedicated on October 13, 1903.  It is a grand affair of white stone and bronze tablets depicting McKinley as soldier and president and his distribution of coffee and food on the battlefield.  A tall shaft topped by an eagle rises into the sky while a robed female perches over the relief of McKinley’s face.  A separate marker along the path to Burnside’s Bridge ensured that visitors know where the monument is, as if you could miss it.  You wonder if the monument would have even been thought of if McKinley had not become president.  If not, we would never have known about the brave actions of supplying food and coffee under fire.

A marker on the path to Burnside’s Bridge makes sure vistors don’t miss the McKinley monument

Whether or not McKinley’s actions merit such an elaborate monument, it is certainly an interesting point on the Antietam battlefield.

McKinley Monument

Kathleen Logothetis graduated in May 2012 with an M.A. in History from West Virginia University. Her thesis, “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army,” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. After a third summer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, she will be continuing at West Virginia University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in History.  Her research interests include the Civil War and American Revolution, military history/soldier experience, and commemoration/memory/monuments. ©

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Memory, Monuments, National Park Service, Personalities, Sesquicentennial and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Story of Heroism….And Coffee

  1. Zac Cowsert says:

    I’ve always found this monument ludicrous. For “passing under fire” with coffee, let’s give the man the biggest monument on that half of the Antietam battlefield! It’s only there because he was President. I’m not belittling his actions, but undoubtedly far greater–and forgotten–deeds of heroism went on that day.

    This, to me, is a good example of how titles and political influence can distort our memory of the past. McKinley’s actions did nothing to change the battle and are pretty insignificant compared to what was occurring at Burnside’s Bridge just a stone’s throw away. Yet he gets the monument. Just as Gettysburg and the Eastern Theater, due to Washington/Richmond, have overshadowed the war west of the Appalachians (where the war may well have been won).

    It’s a good post, certainly a thought-provoking one.

  2. Pingback: Leading to Antietam | Emerging Civil War

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