Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 208-209
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Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War. By William H. Armstrong. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000. Pp. xvi, 191. $18.00 paper.)
William McKinley, America's twenty-fifth president, was both the last in a long line of Civil War veterans to occupy the White House and the only one who began his military career as an enlisted man. In Major McKinley William H. Armstrong, a retired clergyman, presents a lively narrative of McKinley's wartime experiences.
The first four-fifths of the book constitute a straightforward examination of McKinley's army service. In June 1861, at age eighteen, McKinley joined the Union military as a private in Company E of the 23d Ohio Infantry. He spent the next year with his outfit in western Virginia, seeing no serious fighting. He did, however, win the notice of his superiors, including fellow future president Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a lifelong friend. In April 1862 McKinley was promoted to commissary sergeant, responsible for supplying his regiment with rations. McKinley's unit was ordered east that summer and had its baptism of fire during the Confederate invasion of Maryland. At the Battle of Antietam McKinley exhibited personal heroism. With his regiment pinned down near Burnside's Bridge, McKinley on his own initiative returned to the commissary stores, loaded a wagon with a large quantity of cooked food, and drove the wagon to his regiment while under fire. This episode earned McKinley a lieutenant's commission.
After Antietam the 23d Ohio returned to western Virginia, where it remained largely inactive until mid-1864. In the interim, McKinley joined Hayes's staff as assistant quartermaster, exercising these duties in the Shenandoah Valley campaigns of 1864, in which federal armies under generals David Hunter, George Crook, and Philip Sheridan attempted to destroy the Confederate forces of Jubal A. Early. McKinley won commendation from his superiors and a well-deserved captaincy. At the war's end McKinley had risen to the rank of brevet major and was serving as a divisional adjutant.
Armstrong's final chapter evaluates the impact of the Civil War on McKinley's subsequent life. The author shows clearly how "McKinley's later life and career were profoundly affected by his military service" (107). For instance, McKinley regarded the destruction of slavery as one of the war's vital outcomes, so as a U.S. congressmen [End Page 208] and Ohio governor he labored on behalf of the rights of the freepeople, including black suffrage. Similarly, Armstrong demonstrates the importance of McKinley's war record and his support among veterans to his campaign for the presidency in 1896.
At times, however, Armstrong belabors this theme, exaggerating certain connections between McKinley's wartime and postwar experiences. For example, after observing that "McKinley's specialty in Congress was the tariff" and conceding that "his speeches and discussions on that subject contained little that reflected his military service," Armstrong imagines that the speeches' attention to detail "showed the mind of an old quartermaster at work in a new field" (112). This seems like a strained and unnecessary attempt to link all of McKinley's postwar affairs to his army days. On balance, though, Armstrong deserves credit for an interesting and well-researched study.
Western Carolina University