As another Presidents’ Day passes into the rearview mirror, I was reminded of a Presidential Monument on a Civil War battlefield – the McKinley Monument at Antietam, located just off the Burnside’s Bridge parking area. Dedicated in 1903 to President William McKinley, who had been assassinated 25 months before in September 1901, the inscription reads:
Sergeant McKinley Co. E. 23rd Ohio Vol. Infantry, while in charge of the Commissary Department, on the afternoon of the day of the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, personally and without orders served “hot coffee” and “warm food” to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire.
It also lists McKinley’s political offices and two elections to the Presidency.
Many people laugh at this inscription, as seemingly underwhelming and absurd for such a large monument. Jay Luvaas in his battlefield guide sarcastically encouraged his students to view the monument and “ponder the origins of battlefield immortality.” I’m guilty of it too, having used the McKinley Monument as a light moment on battlefield tours I’ve led.
Upon further review, more texture emerges. When McKinley died, he left a transformed nation with an overseas presence unlike ever before in our history. At the time, Antietam was one of the 4 new battlefield parks, which had become centerpoints of Civil War memory. Supporters of the martyred President wanted to note his connection to one of them, and the monument is less about the actions of a sergeant in 1862 as it is about 1901 and a Presidential legacy. I suspect the Monument’s creators viewed the key panel as the one listing the elected offices rather than the description of McKinley’s actions in 1862.
The McKinley monument can also be viewed as an assertion of a generation. William McKinley was also the last Civil War veteran President, and that generation was retiring from public life. On the stage came a younger and vigorous generation personified by Theodore Roosevelt. This is one last reminder of how the Civil War shaped McKinley the man, and McKinley’s generation as a whole, placed on a site that would prominently remind visitors of that legacy.
Unfortunately, a lot of that meaning has been obscured over the years, lost among the coffee and hot food. It is time for a new look at McKinley and his monument.