Uncommon Valor

Good morning, it’s Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. On this date in 1901, President William McKinley died after being shot by an unhinged gunman. It was the third time in 36 years, beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s murder, that a popular U.S. president had been assassinated.

Both McKinley and James A. Garfield had survived presumably more dangerous duty in the service of their country, namely as combat soldiers in the Civil War. They returned home from that crucible only to be shot in the streets of peacetime America.

William McKinley - WikipediaSeventeen-year-old William McKinley Jr. spent the first half of 1860, a presidential election year, as a freshman at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He went home to Poland, Ohio, that summer, but his family’s declining financial situation precluded him from returning to school. He took a job teaching locally and as a post office clerk.

But the country was roiling, and the McKinley clan were devout Methodists and committed abolitionists: When war came, 18-year-old William McKinley enlisted in Mr. Lincoln’s Army. After the war, he would rise up through Republican politics in his home state and win the presidency in 1896 by sweeping away the Republican Party’s traditional anti-Catholic bias, courting black voters, and telling working-class voters that GOP economic policies were good for them as well as business owners.

Considering the earlier presidential assassinations, the federal government’s cavalier attitude toward protecting the country’s chief executive was nothing short of scandalous and the American people were shocked by the loss of their president — just as they had been at the deaths of Lincoln and Garfield.

Like his two predecessors, McKinley had made his name during the Civil War: Lincoln as commander-in-chief and Garfield as a Union Army officer of noted skill. McKinley started at the bottom of the ladder, a teenager who looked so green that he was assigned to be a private in a commissary unit.

He didn’t stay a private for long. At Antietam, the young man, then a 19-year-old corporal, loaded up a wagon train with supplies including hot coffee and food, and braved Confederate musket and artillery fire to cross an open field to resupply starving fellow soldiers two miles away. One wagon was blown up, but McKinley made it safely to the men, who greeted him with “tremendous cheers,” according to eyewitnesses.

After the war, when McKinley began running for office, the “coffee incident” was mocked by one political opponent. To his comrades in arms, however, McKinley was a hero. There’s a statue commemorating his bravery at Antietam to this day.

He performed similar feats repeatedly, once crossing an open field in the Battle of Kernstown, near Winchester, Va., to deliver word to a cutoff regiment to fall back, saving hundreds of lives. He kept getting promoted, to sergeant, to lieutenant to captain — all by age 21. At Kernstown, the officer who sent him into harm’s way was overjoyed when he made it back alive. That officer was another future president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

Before the war was over McKinley was made a major. To the end of his days, this was the honorific he preferred.

“I earned that,” he’d say. “I’m not so sure about the rest.”

McKinley received that brevet commission only a month before President Lincoln was shot. That document was one of his most prized possessions. It stated matter-of-factly that he was being promoted for “gallant and meritorious services at the battles of Opequon, Cedar Creek, and Fisher’s Hill.”

It was signed, “A Lincoln.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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