From Civil War to world stage

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

President William McKinley (111-SC-96204)
President William McKinley (111-SC-96204)

One hundred nine years ago, William McKinley was shot. Though one of the wounds from the bullet would end his life, it wasn’t the first time McKinley had been shot at. Forty years earlier, he was a soldier in the Civil War.

The Ohio-born President wasted little time enlisting in the Civil War, taking the oath as a private in the summer of 1861. Rising through the ranks with relative speed, McKinley made sergeant by the Battle of Antietam in 1862, where he was responsible for the 23rd Ohio’s food rations. Under fire, McKinley delivered hot coffee and warm food to the soldiers on the battlefield and impressed a lieutenant colonel so much that the man recommended him for a direct commission.

That lieutenant colonel was Rutherford B. Hayes. “McKinley was a man of rare capacity,” Hayes said, “especially for a boy of his age . . . the night was never too dark; the weather was never too cold; there was no sleet, or storm, or hail, or snow or rain that was in the way of his prompt and efficient performance in every duty.” Hayes took the newly commissioned McKinley and put him on his staff.

In 1864, McKinley got his first glimpse of the nation’s capital when he marched there to defend it. Just a few miles south, on the way to his final battle at Cedar Creek, he cast his first vote in a Presidential election from the back of an ambulance truck.

By 1865, McKinley had been pinned as a brevet major. “For gallant and meritorious services at the battles of Opequan, Cedar Creek, and Fisher’s Hill,” reads the document commissioning McKinley. It is signed by “A. Lincoln.”

As President himself, McKinley was popular. He swept into the White House in response to the Panic of 1893, and by 1901 had already earned a reelection campaign, waged the Spanish-American War, and expanded the size of the U.S. territory. Under his leadership, the United States entered the 20th century and onto the world stage, first by gaining the territories of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and then working with international troops in response to China’s Boxer Rebellion. “Isolation is no longer possible or desirable,” he said on September 5, 1901. “The good work will go on. It cannot be stopped.”

These were the final words in McKinley’s last public speech. The next day, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley. He would die nearly over a week later from the wounds.

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