By Marsh, John O.
Army , Vol. 62, No. 9
No American President had a greater awareness of the importance of military veterans in our national life than William McKinley or did more to recognize them. Today, however, that remains a neglected chapter in the history of his public service.
McKinley's credentials as a combat veteran are truly exceptional. He served the entire four years of the Civil War and took part in many combat operations both as an enlisted soldier and a commissioned officer.
McKinley's military service was a defining moment in his life and later shaped his public service. When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, McKinley joined the 23rd Ohio Regiment as a private and served in the enlisted ranks for 14 months. Because of his action at the battle of Antietam, he was given a commission as a second lieutenant. Before the war ended in the spring of 1865, President Lincoln had issued him a brevet as a major, citing his outstanding combat duty.
The Warrior's Bond
President McKinley saw that the way to bring the nation together and to reduce sectional antagonism was through the veterans of both armies - North and South. He established a "warrior's bond" with those veterans and had the wartime credentials to do it.
The Spanish- American War occurred during McKinley's presidency. He was impressed by the support and enthusiasm for the war by people in the South, and he brought a representative group of Confederate officers on active duty for leadership positions in the American Army. This gesture was not lost on Southern veterans.
In addition, in 1898, President McKinley addressed the legislature of Georgia. He recognized the outstanding service and sacrifices of the Confederate soldiers in the Civil War and extended a hand of friendship, urging the federal government to assume responsibility for the care of thousands of Confederate soldiers' graves in the North. Acting on his request, Congress granted approval; consequently, there are Confederate graves in the Arlington National Cemetery, placed in concentric circles around an impressive monument to their sacrifice and valor. The monument was the creation of Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran now buried under it.
McKinley was also instrumental in the initiative to return battle flags that had been either surrendered or captured in the war to the Southern states. Earlier efforts by President Grover Cleveland to accomplish this had been unsuccessful and enraged the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union veterans.
Tragically, shortly after President McKinley began his second term, he was assassinated at a public event in Buffalo, N.Y.
He left not just a soldier's legacy but also a legacy of distinguished public service, which included many years in the U. …