McKinley’s Ride

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Eric Sterner

William McKinley

Quartermasters don’t usually have their stories spread nationally or warrant monuments, but William McKinley, 25th President of the Unites States, has one at Antietam. There, as a young sergeant, McKinley took the uncommon step of loading up supply wagons and bringing them through fire to feed hungry men on the battle line. As a result, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, commanding the 23rd Ohio and having already noted McKinley’s organizational talents, sought to promote the sergeant to lieutenant and eventually made him a staff member. It was in this capacity that one of the best Civil War McKinley stories arose from his ride through a storm of shot and shell to rescue the 13th West Virginia from isolation at Second Kernstown, July 24, 1864.  As his political career blossomed, a political machine spread the story of McKinley’s ride.  One hundred and fifty years after the battle, the 21st century political strategist Karl Rove used it to open his study of the 1896 presidential campaign.[i]

At Second Kernstown, Major General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia faced Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Crook, believing Early had departed the valley to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia, mistakenly thought he was facing a smaller, harassing force when he deployed his army on the same fields where Colonel Nathan Kimball had fought off Stonewall Jackson in 1862. In truth, Early’s larger force extended well beyond both of Crook’s flanks, the left of which was held by a brigade of Ohioans and West Virginians under the Command of Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. When Early turned both flanks and Crook’s position collapsed, he ordered a general withdrawal.  On the left, one of Hayes’ regiments, the 13th WV, which the Colonel had posted in an orchard in a slight hollow some 500 yards behind his original line, did not receive the word. As Hayes’ brigade retreated, the West Virginians’ plight became apparent.  Separated from the rest of the army and in danger of being enveloped, McKinley rode to the regiment to bring it off the field and rejoin the Army of West Virginia on its retreat down the valley.

Charles Olcott, whose two-volume biography of McKinley was published in 1916, tells McKinley’s story best:

“Pointing to the regiment in danger [Hayes] asked the lieutenant if he would be willing to carry an order to the colonel to retreat.  With scarcely a word of reply the young lieutenant spurred his wiry little bob-tailed horse and was off across the field.  It was a dangerous ride.  Bullets were flying, shells were exploding, and the course lay across an open field through the thickest of the leaden shower.  Once the horse and rider were enveloped in a thick cloud of dust and smoke as a shell struck the ground directly in front, and for a moment the anxious watchers thought their brave young comrade was lost.  But the little brown horse soon emerged, with its rider as firmly in the saddle as a cowboy, and on they dashed until they reached the shelter of some trees.”[ii]  Informed of his predicament, Colonel William Brown had his regiment fire off a volley at the Confederates then “followed the lead of the boy who had rescued him and safely rejoined his brigade.”[iii]

Unfortunately, as thorough as his biography was, Olcott did not cite his sources, only listing a few of the people he interviewed and upon whose memories and documentation he relied. The passage itself is suspect, as it would be uncharacteristic for a brigade commander to ask whether a subordinate staff officer was willing to carry an order. Giving McKinley a choice, as Olcott did, made his subject appear more heroic.

Olcott likely relied on an earlier biography of McKinley written and assembled by Robert Porter and published in 1896.[iv] In tone, tenor, and purpose, Porter’s book is a campaign biography, meant to put McKinley in the best light for his presidential run.  To address Second Kernstown, Porter relied on General Russell Hastings, a captain on Hayes’ brigade staff during the battle. He served as adjutant general while Lieutenant McKinley served as quartermaster. In Hastings’ telling, Hayes sent McKinley—he did not ask—to move the 13th WV off the battlefield, then grew sad as the lieutenant set off obliquely across to the field to “certain death.” Although slightly less florid, Hastings’ account generally agrees with Olcott’s.[v]

Modern studies of the battle and McKinley’s wartime service tend to accept the 1916 Olcott or 1896 Porter/Hastings versions of events.[vi] While demonstrating McKinley’s courage to be sure, there may be less to the lieutenant’s story than meets the eye.  In a July 26th letter Hayes wrote his wife “McKinley and Hastings were very gallant,” without mentioning the lieutenant’s ride.[vii]  In his official report of the battle written on August 8th, Colonel Hayes draws attention to the 13th WV’s performance, but makes no mention of McKinley.[viii] In 1891, during McKinley’s first run for the governorship in Ohio, Hayes, former governor and president, introduced McKinley at an Ohio conference. His comments focused on McKinley’s wartime service, but Hayes only highlighted the candidate’s initiative and courage at Antietam, not his ride into “certain death” at Second Kernstown.[ix]

As it turns out, Hastings did not personally witness McKinley’s ride, despite the drama he attached to it in the account he provided for Porter’s 1896 biography. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum has digitized a copy of General Hastings’ unpublished personal memoir, which includes several chapters on the Civil War and a specific account of Second Kernstown.  By the time Hayes dispatched McKinley to rescue the 13th WV, Hastings was already in the rear forming a guard line to sweep up stragglers and form a new defensive line upon which the brigade could rally.  Hastings wrote in the memoir, “While I was gone Hayes had sent Lieutenant William McKinley to bring off the 13th West Virginia Regiment, which had been posted before the battle as a reserve.  He performed his work in a most gallant manner, bringing the regiment out from under with but little loss.”[x]

None of this contradicts the general gist of McKinley’s ride as portrayed in the Porter or Olcott biographies or the danger he faced during the chaos of a battle going badly for the Union. Circumstances are entirely consistent with the story. Hayes would have wanted to ensure the 13th WV retreated with the brigade and it was standard practice for staff officers to carry messages through combat zones. McKinley only needed to be near at hand for the assignment to fall to him. One would expect the lieutenant to have ridden through a storm of shot and shell to deliver the order and he certainly had demonstrated courage under fire earlier in his military career.

The lack of contemporary notice, however, suggests that McKinley’s ride may not have been all that out of the ordinary. The lieutenant simply did his duty. It was recorded for posterity long after the event due to the McKinley’s subsequent political career, without which McKinley’s ride would stand out no more than the thousands of rides through shot and shell made by thousands of staff officers during the course of a massive Civil War.  While a fine illustration of McKinley’s courage, the story is more important as a reminder of the roles anonymous staff officers played and the risks they regularly took, usually without acclaim or notice.

McKinley, who identified with the “common man” rather than the war’s generals and heroes, would likely have appreciated the nuance.

[i]  Karl Rove, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), p. 1.

[ii] Charles S. Olcott, William McKinley, Volume 1 of 2, in the American Statesman, Second Series, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), p. 45.

[iii]  Olcott, ibid., p. 46.

[iv]  Robert P. Porter, Life of William McKinley: Soldier, Lawyer, Statesman, (Cleveland: The N.G. Hamilton Publishing Co., 1896).

[v]   Porter, Ibid., p. 82.

[vi]   Scott Patchan, Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), pp. 225, 358 n. 43; William H. Armstrong, Major William McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War, (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2000), pp. 72-73, and 161, n. 69-71. James M. Perry, Touched with Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles that Made Them, (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), pp. 195-196.  Perry does not cite his source for the story and does not list either the Olcott or Porter books in his bibliography, but his retelling is nearly the same as Hastings in the Porter biography and he lists the Hastings papers among his sources.  As already mentioned, Rove’s political biography of McKinley repeats the story.

[vii]  Charles Richard Williams, ed., Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Volume II, 1861-1865, (The Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, 1922), p. 486.  Hayes frequently mentioned McKinley to his wife in their correspondence and was quite impressed with the sergeant/young officer.  Curiously, he mentioned McKinley’s promotion after Antietam without describing the sergeant’s actions meriting the promotion.

[viii]  U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records if the Union and Confederate Armies.  128 vols.  (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series I, Vol. 37, part 1, pp. 311-312.

[ix]   “R.B. Hayes Introduces William McKinley,” Fremont Journal, August 14, 1891.  Text graciously provided by the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont, OH.

[x]   Russell Hastings, The Civil War Memoir of Russell Hastings, Chapter VII, July 10th to August 6th, 1864, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums.  Available at:  Accessed June 22, 2017.

6 Responses to McKinley’s Ride

  1. Interesting to read about these details of McKinley’s C.W. service. I know relatively little about him, either as a soldier or a politician. I did read he translated his experience in the war shaped his post-war politics, and that as a politician in Ohio he supported rights for the former slaves he’d fought to free– including voting rights. Is that correct, do you know?

  2. Sadly, I don’t. I was studying Second Kernstown when I came across the story and decided to dig a little deeper. At that battle, he also reportedly comforted a northern sympathizer in Winchester as the army retreated and mobilized his old company from the 23rd OH to rescue some artillery pieces that had been abandoned during the retreat. I’m considerably less familiar with his post-war career, but suspect he received a huge boost from Hayes. IIRC, there’s a new biography of McKinley coming out this fall which should shed some insight.

    It’s honestly embarrassing because I grew up about an hour from his museum and childhood home, neither of which I’ve visited.

    1. Thanks Eric. Google tells me you are right about McKinley getting a boost from Hayes in politics, in Ohio and nationally. He also, I know, got a huge boost from Union veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic (as did Grant and subsequent Union veterans and GAR members). I have an ancestor who founded a GAR post and went barnstorming for McKinley’s election, from New England into the mid-west, giving election speeches in the company of fellow GAR members. I know about his involvement in the GAR through his obituaries, but know little about the organization… Can you or anyone out there recommend a book or article about the group? I bet its history is fascinating. I read that posts welcomed African Americans into their ranks, among the first fraternal organizations to do so.

      Re your paucity of visits to your local museums and parks, you are not alone. Like they say, many New Yorkers never get to the Statue of Liberty.

  3. I have to plead ignorance again. I haven’t studied the post-war fraternal organizations as institutions, although I have used some of their published histories/memoirs/files etc. A number of posts apparently released an annual volume that recorded both the post’s events, speeches, etc. that touched on the war or recollections of local veterans. MOLLUS state commanderies did quite a few.

    I hear you about visiting local memorials. I live in northern VA now. Thirty-two years and I still haven’t been to the top of the Washington Monument. (Checked most of the major national monuments off the list and have visited just about every Civil War site or museum I can find within a day’s drive at least once).

  4. Thanks for sharing what you know, Eric, which is more than I do and helpful. My ancestor’s post was in Lowell, Mass., which has an excellent Historical Society. I’ll check with them on material published by and on the G.A.R. post.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!